It’s a wonderful thing when the stars align for a book, when the book is brilliant, the writer is ready, and the readership is eager. Expect that to happen as New Orleanian Maurice Carlos Ruffin debuts his new novel, “We Cast a Shadow.”
Sometimes the literary world rolls out the welcome mat in a big way, as it has for this futuristic novel of race relations, the story of a black father’s quest to “save” his biracial son from the bleak future of becoming a black man in America. It is both satirical and wise, action-packed and contemplative, smart and funny. It’s a novel that is both very much of this moment and for all time.
And perhaps only a New Orleanian could have written it, for it is full of pageantry and performance and gallows humor. No wonder it’s turned up on every 2019 “must read” list from Cosmopolitan to Huffington Post, Goodreads, Garden & Gun, Barnes & Noble, the Los Angeles Times, BuzzFeed, Parade magazine and the Millions.
“I think I was originally inspired by Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man,’ ” Ruffin said. “I remember reading that book in college and thinking that this book so perfectly describes how it feels to be black in America. And then around the time Trayvon Martin was killed, I thought of those conversations around what happened to him — his murder — those conversations combined in my mind and I thought I could write a book about a very American city with a very American problem.”
“We Cast a Shadow” looks at a segregated city of the future, in which his unnamed protagonist is a lawyer with a prominent law firm. He is scrambling to make money for an expensive procedure — demelanization — that will make his son white, leading him to make wild and desperate moves.
“The main character is a striver, living the American dream,” Ruffin said. “He is a father who loves his son, a husband who loves his wife, a family man who loves his family, and he’s looking at his son, thinking what is it like for his son to present as a black man in America — how to protect him. He has this birthmark that’s dark brown and getting bigger as he gets older. Should he get rid of it, try to hide it somehow?”
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Predicting can be a risky business, Ruffin admitted, but, as he said, “While I was writing this, I thought, 'How do you speak about the future?' But the more I read about history, more I realize that things come in cycles, what’s old is new, what’s new is old. Looking at the history of slavery and incarceration, you realize that the same ideas are repeated by people who want to oppress other people.
“And I wondered, ‘What if things got really bad really quickly?’ I decided to look decades out. For me, it’s a story that’s designed to show 360 degrees of a person’s life that we don’t often see in literature or life.”
Ruffin grew up in a big family in New Orleans East, the son of a car salesman and a health care assistant. “It was the perfect suburban neighborhood,” he recalled. His father came from a family of 11 brothers and sisters, so “I learned what it means to be someone who cares for somebody else.” That love of family and place is writ large in “We Cast a Shadow.”
“New Orleans informs the book, obviously,” Ruffin said. “I think that I really wanted to do something that encompassed the New Orleans experience as well as the Southern experience. This region is so particular and our stories are often caricatured. Take plantations — some people think of them as a joyous place where weddings take place. Look at the more honest picture — what does it feel like to be in place where people were once enslaved? You wouldn’t go into a cemetery for a party, why would you go to a plantation and have a party?”
On the surface, Ruffin might have seemed destined for an ordinary life. He married his high school sweetheart; after attending the University of New Orleans and earning degrees in English and sociology, he headed to Loyola University School of Law. Now he is an attorney with the Social Security Administration. His determination to write led him to the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop.
“I started out, I struggled, and I was lucky enough to find good people to sort of lead me and help me along the path, and here I am, years and years later,” Ruffin said.
He’s been inspired by books, of course: “Ellison showed me theme and scope,” he said. “Then Toni Morrison took me to a big level of audaciousness with the big American stories in her novels. Then I take Faulkner as inspiration, looking from gold to platinum. And I love the work of Octavia Butler, Mat Johnson, Percival Everett. Kiese Laymon has been an important mentor for me.”
Closer to home, his support system includes the fellowship and encouragement of The Peauxdunque Writers Alliance, founded in 2007. “I’d often test out pieces with them because it was such a safe space,” Ruffin said. “I think it’s really important for writers to find their tribe. We met in Pirates Alley in the French Quarter the first time — it was a dark and stormy night — Tad Bartlett, and our friend Terri Shrum Stoor (who died in 2017) and Emilie Staat and April Blevins Pejic. We have a yearly retreat. We have various meeting places; we even joke we have a meeting place on the moon.”
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Ruffin has been an extraordinarily generous literary citizen, appearing at readings and festivals, supporting old friends and new writers along the way. He has built his career with memorable essays and short stories and now is a book editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review.
One of the highlights of Ruffin’s early recognition was a feature and photo shoot in The New York Times' T Magazine, focused on “Black Male Writers for Our Time.” There were 32 writers included; five had Louisiana ties — Jericho Brown, Brian Keith Jackson, Yusef Komunyakaa, Rickey Laurentiis and Ruffin.
“Oh, my goodness, I felt like Forrest Gump, like I was digitally inserted into the scenery,” Ruffin said with a laugh. “There were so many amazing writers — multiple Pulitzer Prize winners and National Book Award winners. We were together maybe eight or nine hours. I felt like I was dreaming the entire time. There was Ishmael Reed; I’ve been reading him since way back in the day. He’s in his 80s now and so incredibly sharp. And James McBride was so down to earth.”
While most of the authors were dressed by stylists, Ruffin got the nod from the get-go for his sharp attire. In the caption for the story, it's noted that he “Wears his own clothes.” To which one might easily add, “Writes his own books. Is his own man.”
In the ideal future, this is what Ruffin sees: “There are a lot of young black kids in New Orleans who could use some inspiration. Now if any one of them reads my books and says, 'Have you read that book by Maurice Carlos Ruffin? I can do better,’ well, if that were to happen, I would be so proud.”