Robin Talley, Lies We Tell Ourselves

LiesLies We Tell Ourselves has by far the best opening sentence of the books from this year’s Carnegie shortlist that I’ve read so far: The white people are waiting for us.

As Sarah and her companions prepare to walk into their new school, they face an indistinguishable mob, shouting things that can’t be made out, merely a “dull roar”. The crowd gets closer but is still “the white people”; but now the words can be heard. There’s “go back to Africa,” and there are the slurs and the threats.

It is tremendously effective writing because it takes a long history of racist tropes, faceless black and brown mobs yelling incomprehensibly, pawing at white protagonists, and it turns them around and weaponises them. We recognise (because centuries of books and art are there to remind us) the horror of this mob, this faceless mass. Except that this section needs to be brutal (because the history of racism is brutal; because this mob is brutal) so we must have the slurs as well. Suddenly you’re hit by a solid wall of the n word. It might be necessary for what the chapter is trying to do, and I’ve never had that particular word thrown at me by a shouting mob, but if I hadn’t committed to reading this book for the award I might have stopped reading. I began to suspect that perhaps Talley’s book was assuming an audience that needed to know what having racist slurs yelled at them felt like. I still don’t know if that was unfair.

The plot: it’s 1959 in a fictional US town in Virginia, and a group of black children is to be integrated into a previously all-white school. Sarah Dunbar is one; she’s in her final year of school, is a brilliant student and singer, and plans to go to university. Linda Hairston, daughter of a prominent local racist and violent abuser, is one of the students most vocally opposed to integration–in part because her father’s arguments make sense to her, and in part because placating him is the safe thing to do. The narrative is divided between these two characters, as Sarah attempts to survive her school year, Linda comes up against her own racism, and both girls struggle to come to terms with their attraction towards one another.

This splitting of the narrative across the two voices may not have been a great idea. Sarah’s story works, on the whole; Talley captures some of the paranoia of being on guard all the time, the constant threat of violence, and the anger. But then we have Linda’s narrative, and the very structure of the book suggests that these two stories should have equal weight, that Sarah’s tale of quite literally trying to survive is worthy of the same amount of space as Linda’s harrowing story of having to rethink her racism. There’s an attempt to level things out a bit by emphasising Linda’s difficult situation (her father); but Mr Hairston is either an extenuating circumstance, or a result of a structural sexism that surely affects both girls (in the circumstances it’s interesting that Talley dramatises the threat of sexual assault to the black girls but never has it result in anything very concrete). To have these two (at first) opposing voices sets the book up as a sort of dialogue, and positions the disagreement (“disagreement”!) as in some way reasonable; “well obviously racism is bad, but there are arguments to be heard on both sides”. I was taken aback, when looking for reviews online, to find a review by a (presumably) teenage reader which came to the conclusion “I’m not siding with either”. [I wonder, also, if the dynamic Dani Gurira describes here is playing out in this narrative as well.]

Having made that criticism, it may seem contradictory to then complain that Linda’s racism doesn’t seem reasonable enough. Racism may not make sense (whatever that may mean), but it generally seems to generate its own logic, at least enough for people to buy into it. A different book might have had its protagonist come up against her own beliefs over and over; last year’s winner, Tanya Landman’s Buffalo Soldier, achieves something similar, though its later sections disappointed me. Linda never seems convinced by her own arguments–and perhaps that’s because they’re her father’s arguments, but then what are Linda’s thoughts? What is it like to believe this stuff? It’s interesting to me that the one moment in the book where racial difference is felt is in that opening sequence, and suggests that the book is either unable or unwilling to make its racist characters feel … racist.

In that remarkable opening chapter is a scene where Sarah, forced to face the crowd, squares her shoulders and walks forward reciting Psalm 23. It’s a beautiful moment; I love its acknowledgement of faith as a powerful factor in its characters’s lives, as well as a political force in the civil rights movement, and I love that my mind leapt to Bree Newsome reciting Psalm 27 last year. It was disappointing, then, to have Christianity all but disappear from the narrative, only resurfacing each time the girls wanted to berate themselves for their attraction to one another. This, too, felt to me like a missed opportunity to attempt to get into other heads and other mindsets or at least to treat those other heads and mindsets as significantly different to one’s own.

The school year continues [spoilers here]: the girls are forced to work together on a project and find themselves appreciating one another’s gifts more and more; Sarah berates Linda for being racist when she’s so clever; Linda is horrified that the other children in her school are being so barbaric (she didn’t mean hit them, just structurally discriminate against them at every level); Sarah and Linda accidentally kiss; Linda attempts to appease her father by way of a public barb about Sarah’s friend Chuck dating a white girl; a mob attacks him and he nearly dies; Linda is sad about nearly causing her friend’s friend’s death; the two girls decide to move to Washington and drive off into the sunset. It’s a happy ending!

It’s a happy ending if you’re reading from Linda’s perspective, anyway. Faced with the horrifying reality of racism through her guilt at (oops!) nearly causing a death, she’s forgiven, redeemed, able to escape her horrible father, and start a new life with the girl she likes. Perhaps Sarah also feels lucky to be able to get away and travel to another city with the girl who played a major role in her friend’s near death and who persists in insisting that Sarah herself is merely an exceptional member of her race. Perhaps Sarah is a lot more forgiving than I am.

One of the people with whom I discussed the book said that she found the use of “white people” throughout jarring, and again, targeted at comforting a white audience (there there, no one’s denying your personhood). I don’t have enough historical context to know what more likely contemporary alternatives would have been, so can’t speak to that, but I was surprised by the author’s note, in which she claims that people she speaks to about the book tend to ask “Was desegregation really that bad?”, which to me feels indicative of an audience that can afford not to be too aware of this history. (But I’m not American, I don’t know to what extent this history is available–to black communities as well as white ones.)  Lies We Tell Ourselves feels a fundamentally safe book that gives its audience just so much but no more racial violence and a reassuring redemption arc. If, as I say, you’re reading from Linda’s perspective.

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