How far would you go to protect a child?
In Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s debut novel, “We Cast a Shadow,” parental love, fear and paranoia leads up to the point of annihilating the child’s identity in order to save him.
“My name doesn’t matter,” says the book’s narrator in its first four words — and it doesn’t, to him. What does matter is his son, Nigel, who was born with “a speck, like a fleck of oregano,” on his eyelid — a tiny birthmark that spreads like a cancer as he gets older, crossing his forehead and down his cheek as he approaches puberty. It was “colored from wheat to sienna to umber, the hard hue of my own husk,” his father says, “as if a shard of myself were emerging from him.”
Nigel’s father is a black lawyer living in a dystopian city much like New Orleans. While other parents may attempt to secure their children’s success through things like a college admissions program, Nigel’s father — a lawyer — is looking to allow Nigel not just to succeed, but also to survive in a hostile world. And he’ll do whatever it takes to keep Nigel from getting darker, even if it destroys father, son and the family itself.
Ruffin — like his narrator, an attorney — began writing “We Cast a Shadow” in 2012 while studying at the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. “There were two impetuses,” he says. “I wanted to write a novel, and the book came alive around the time of the killing of Trayvon Martin. I needed to focus my effort on what happened and why it happened. It is a meditation on parental love for a child, parental love that comes out on the space of the inequity that comes out of racism in America.”
Nigel’s father is working frantically to afford an expensive, controversial process called “demelanization,” which would arrest his son’s blackening complexion and allow him to pass for white as an adult. His wife, Penny, who is white, loathes the idea, as does Nigel — but the narrator is convinced he knows better than either of them what a black man would face in the book's alternative New Orleans, where the public schools resemble bombed-out killing fields and an ominous state penitentiary, Liberia, stands ready to take in generation after generation of young black men.
“I do think every parent is a zealot,” Ruffin says of his main character. “He has to continue to evolve, otherwise he will feel he will lose. He does some extreme things, but there is an extreme logic to it as well.”
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Ruffin grew up in the Kingswood neighborhood of New Orleans East, with “lots of aunts and uncles around,” he says, many of whom were displaced by Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures, ending up in Atlanta, Houston and Baton Rouge. “My mom is on the West Bank,” he says.
Though the location and the time period of “We Cast a Shadow” never is spelled out, it’s clear it’s an alternative present or future set here. In the book’s first pages, for instance, Uptown lawyers go to a tony party just off a boulevard called “Avenue of the Streetcars.”
“I made a conscious decision to never mention the city,” Ruffin says. “Being so much around party culture here, which is enmeshed with plantation culture …. Part of living in New Orleans is living in more of an illusion than you can imagine. Walking through the French Quarter, you can imagine people walking down those same streets, having the same conversations a century ago. It doesn’t take that much imagination.”
Comparisons to other modern black novelists are obvious, from Colson Whitehead (whose “The Underground Railroad” is about a real system of trains beneath the earth shuttling slaves to safety) to Paul Beatty, whose 2015 satire “The Sellout” imagines a farmer in modern-day Los Angeles who attempts to bring back slavery. But Ruffin is clear about even the most fantastical aspects of his book: “This is not magic realism,” he says. “These are things, with the exception of one or two things, that all could happen.”
Since its publication last month, “We Cast a Shadow” has received near-unanimous acclaim everywhere, from the pages of The New York Times to National Public Radio, including starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews.
Ruffin says he’s been delighted to see people on Instagram from the Pacific Northwest to Paris reading the book and showing off its distinctive cover. The book has just gone into its second printing, and a paperback release is set for 2020, he says. This month he signed a contract with Random House for a second book, “The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You,” a collection of short stories, including some written in the UNO workshop.
And he’s obtained a film agent.
“There are some talks going on,” he says. As to whether he’d rather see “We Cast a Shadow” as a two-hour feature film, a cable miniseries, he says he’s open to anything: “We’re in the golden age of both mediums.”
Recently Ruffin began teaching creative writing for undergraduate students at Tulane University. “I’m giving back,” he says, “but I’m also getting a lot of good energy from these students.”
Most of all, he’s been gratified by local reaction to his book, which has been praised in The New Orleans Advocate, The Times-Picayune, Antigravity and elsewhere.
“I think the general reaction is the same reaction people have to the New Orleans Saints,” Ruffin says. “People here are going to show you hometown love.”