Lauren Wilkinson, author of our June pick for the NewsHour-New York Times book club, Now Read This, joins Jeffrey Brown to answer reader questions about “American Spy.”
Our Now Read This book club pick for June was a spy thriller that is relevant amid the Black Lives Matter protests.
Jeffrey Brown talks with author Lauren Wilkinson. It's part of our series, Canvas.
The West African nation of Burkina Faso in the 1980s, and the real-life figure of revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara, whom the CIA is eager to be rid of, it's the setting of "American Spy," a Cold War espionage thriller with a twist: Its protagonist is a black woman named Marie Mitchell.
Author Lauren Wilkinson:
The thing that I was after was creating a very complicated female character in the spy genre.
I felt that the spy genre is actually a really good opportunity to talk about double consciousness, because it is so much about — to me, being a spy is so much about being very, very aware of how other people perceive you. So, it felt like a perfect metaphor for that.
This idea of the double consciousness that Du Bois wrote about and others have — I mean, I was thinking about Ralph Ellison, of course, with "Invisible Man."
Your main character's father says at one point: I have been a spy in this country for as long as I can remember.
I mean, that, to me, was a direct hat tip to Ellison, that his — the main character's grandfather in "Invisible Man" says something very similar to him that kind of confounds the protagonist for most of the book.
I think this book is my own version of exploring that idea, what the grandfather was saying when he said that he was a spy his whole life.
I mean, in this case, it's a spy, but as a black man in his case.
Yes. I took it — I took that metaphorical idea, and I made it as literal as possible to kind of give it a little more dimension.
Well, another thing you're clearly exploring through your character is right and wrong.
In the classic spy genre, at least that I'm familiar, with like a John Le Carre Cold War, people are aware of the moral ambiguities, but they sort of fall into it, right? I mean, you don't even know who is good and bad anymore.
Your character, she's trying to keep hold of what's right and wrong.
I love the spy that exists in the moral gray area. That's the one that always speaks to me.
Le Carre's spies — I love "Spy Who Came in from the Cold" so much, because I love that figure who is morally gray, who is trying to follow their own moral compass, because it may not be aligned with the country that they are working for.
And so I think, with Marie, with a black spy, there is an added dimension to that, which is that her awareness that she is working for and serving an institution that she does not feel is designed to serve her, as a black American.
So, she has every reason to challenge the moral compass of the institution in which she works, and she's challenged by it despite herself.
And, of course, you wrote this before what's happening in our culture right now.
But we were reading it at our club. I just read it in the last few weeks, after the killing of George Floyd, with the protesters in the street.
How do you see the book now? I mean, does it resonate in a new way for you?
No, because I felt that I was writing about things that have always existed and will always exist, unless we make some real, real systemic changes.
So, I think what has been happening is that it's always been present. Only now is there an awareness of it in sort of more mainstream thinking in our country.
As I said, the book took seven years, and I wrote about it through those full seven years with the confidence that the way that Marie felt was going to resonate with black people.
All right, the novel is "American Spy."
Lauren Wilkinson, thank you very much.
Thank you for having me.
That was great.
And, for July, our book club selection is "Citizen: An American Lyric" by Claudia Rankine. In it, she explores moments in her own life and those of others to draw a richly detailed portrait of race in America.
We hope you will read along and join other readers here and on our Facebook page for Now Read This, our book club collaboration with The New York Times.
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Jeffrey Brown is the chief correspondent for arts, culture and society at PBS NewsHour.
Courtney Vinopal is a general assignment reporter at the PBS NewsHour.
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