The year is 1969. Nixon has been sworn in as President. America reels from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In upstate New York, the Woodstock Festival is born. And in downtown Chicago, riots rage at the Democratic National Convention.
This is the setting of Chicago native Shawn Shiflett’s latest novel, Hey, Liberal!. It’s the story of Simon Fleming, the white son of a civil rights activist minister, navigating his way through a predominantly African American public high school in the heart of Chicago (a school that’s on the verge of collapse thanks to clashing racial and political groups). As Simon dodges taunts and blows, we meet the rest of the central cast: a racist school police officer, a protective black classmate, a radical teacher, and drugged-out Louis, one of the only other white kids at the school.
Hey, Liberal!—which is also Louis’ nickname for Simon—is a timely look at race, politics, integration, and violence. I recently spoke with Shiflett about his experience writing this racially charged novel, the gentrification of the Lincoln Park neighborhood, and forgiveness.
For our Chicago-area readers: Shiflett will be participating in a number of local events this fall (a schedule can be found on his website), including a reading with CHIRB-interviewed author Christine Rice on September 10th at the Book Stall.
Lauren Stacks: Tell us about your inspiration for Hey, Liberal! —where did the idea for the story come from, how long have you been working on this project, and what sort of research was required?
Shawn Shiflett: The earliest seeds for Hey, Liberal! were probably planted in me from when my father was involved in the Civil Rights Movement. (See the letter that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sent to my father, the Reverend James Shiflett, in the back of Hey, Liberal!). At one protest in Albany, Georgia, he was arrested, after which he and forty-five other northern clergymen went on a hunger strike in jail to continue their protest against discriminatory Jim Crow laws.
The hunger strike lasted 6 days, and after my father’s release from jail, I still remember how skinny as well as strangely invigorated he looked when the rest of my family and I picked him up at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. I didn’t know it then, but the trajectory of my life changed drastically on that day, and six years later I would be attending Waller High School, which is the predominately black and Hispanic high school that Dexter is based on in the novel. I was sent there primarily as a political statement by my parents.
A few years after I graduated from high school, I was a Creative Writing student at Columbia College Chicago. I was behind on my assignments and at a loss for what to write about next. On a lark, I wrote a couple of scenes that would eventually turn into the chapter “Driver’s Education.” The scenes were read out loud to students, but my name as author was withheld. Afterward, the teacher, John Schultz, asked, “So who wrote that?” First, everyone guessed the black male students. Then everyone guessed the black female students. Then (and I still don’t fully understand this) they guessed every single white woman in the class. Finally, after a long pause, someone said, “There’s no one else here.” It was like I was completely invisible, and that to me was a thrilling and affirming moment.
As for research, though the book is fiction, I wanted to get the historical framework of the story as accurate as possible. For instance: during what months were Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy assassinated? Was Fred Hampton, the Chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party, murdered by Chicago Police Officers before or after Hey, Liberal! takes place? How many people got arrested during a particular riot at Waller High? I even took a Sunday morning trip down to the Maxwell Street flea market (back when it still existed) to get a refresher on how it all looked and operated.
Lauren Stacks: Writers are so often told to “write what you know”, which can be at once helpful and limiting. Since the birth of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign in 2014, there’s been promotion for greater diversity in literature—as well as much discussion around whether white authors can (and should) write diverse characters. Can you tell us about your experience writing a book centered on race relations with a full cast of diverse characters as a white author?
Shawn Shiflett: Yes, we need diverse reading experiences for readers, but a discussion about whether or not white authors can write “diverse characters” . . . really? The whole point of fiction is to be able to imagine life through another’s eyes. As I’ve never been a woman, should I never write about women or from a woman’s point of view? And maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I don’t think I’ve ever been told by anyone that I can’t write from the point of view of someone who is, say, Hispanic or black.
Race aside, writers often don’t know what they know until they discover it in their writing process. Had I not had some very real support and encouragement from African Americans over the years, I never would have finished Hey, Liberal!. For example, David Bradley, author of Channeysville Incident, wrote a wonderfully supportive blurb for Hey, Liberal!. Did he agree with every aspect of the story? I doubt it, as we writers can certainly pick apart each other’s works. But he would never, in a million years, have told me that I was not allowed or able to write Hey, Liberal! because I’m white. When it comes to the subject of race relations in America, our common enemy is silence, and in fiction writing of late, the silence from white writers has been deafening.
Lauren Stacks: While set in 1969, the novel outlines events we could easily be reading about in today’s newspaper—race riots and unrest, gun violence, and police brutality. Why was it important to you to set this story within a historical context, rather than in the modern day?
Shawn Shiflett: By the time this recent spat of unrest, gun violence, and police brutality had begun to take center stage in our national media spotlight, I had already completed (once again) the manuscript. I certainly can understand why people see a direct correlation to the racial violence described in Hey, Liberal!, and the racial violence currently being seen almost weekly on our TV and computer screens.
But as an optimist, I think that we may very well be in the midst of a great leap forward in race relations as technology is giving us (and this is particularly important for whites) a close up and personal view of what people of color have been telling us about police brutality, systemic racism, the effects of a devastating incarceration rate for black males in the U.S., and other inexcusable dysfunctions in our society. Call me naïve, but I believe that the more we all see these tragedies on YouTube, the more we’ll unite in demanding change.
Lauren Stacks: Simon Fleming, the book’s main character, is nicknamed “Liberal” by his good friend Louis. But really, Simon is more of a moderate character, always unsure of his exact viewpoints and his best course of actions. He hates the corrupt school police officer, but takes his assistance. He has a crush on a sexually enlightened girl, but won’t “go all the way” with her. He tries to befriend the Black and Latino kids at school, but is never entirely comfortable around them. In what ways to do feel Simon lives us to his nickname, and where does he fall short?
Shawn Shiflett: I think it’s safe to say that the word liberal was more closely associated with “moderate” in the 60’s, but due to the constant rhetorical drumbeat of conservative radio talk show hosts, FOX News, tea partiers, and others, liberal is now considered further to the political left and more extreme than it once was.
Back in the day, the common complaint about liberals was that they were wishy-washy in their political views for the sake of their own convenience, and that you could never really pin them down on what they stood for. That claim is often nothing more than a cheap shot, in my opinion, or even worse, an attempt to dismiss someone for the supposed sin of his or her pragmatism. What’s amazing to me is that a boy as young as Simon is even concerned with forging his own political identity.
And though he wants to think of himself as a “radical”—a leftist political label that had a lot more cache and sex appeal in ’69 than did the label of liberal—I don’t exactly see him joining up with the Weather Underground and learning how to make bombs to blow up government buildings. No, he is a middle class kid who, even though stuck between the idealism of his parents and the racial violence at his school, is a survivor.
Lauren Stacks: In the book, Simon’s friend Louis is terrorized by the black students at their high school, where he feels he experiences more extreme racism than the students of color. I couldn’t help but imagine Louis as the type who might write an angry post about how “all lives matter” on his Facebook page in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. What do you think his response would be to today’s racial tensions?
Shawn Shiflett: I have to be careful how I handle this question without spoiling the story for readers, but my emphatic response to your question is that if Louis were around today and watching that video clip of Eric Garner getting choked to death, he would have identified with Garner. And if Louis were to have heard that audio recording of Trayvon Martin in a life-or-death struggle with a man about to shoot him for no reason other than he was black, wearing a hoodie, and walking down the street, Louis most certainly would have identified with Trayvon.
Today’s adult Louis would have understood what it’s like to be the other, what it’s like to be singled out and bullied, and what it’s like to fear, on an almost daily basis, for your life. As for the seventeen-year-old Louis, there are times in the novel where he lashes out and speaks with language and anger that makes me cringe, but no reader should confuse his adolescent actions at those times with wisdom.
Wisdom, I am certain, would have come to Louis later in life. I believe that he would have been salvageable, just as I believe that Frank Tucker, the gangbanger who terrorized Simon, was salvageable, and yes, even an overt racist like Officer Clark was morally salvageable. In Louis, I wanted a character that readers would care about deeply, but also one who for better or worse, and largely because of personal tragedy, had been stripped clean of his so-called white guilt.
The result was a kid who was a loose canon. But in today’s world, Louis would have had no problem with an organization like Black Lives Matter. Maybe my saying that will surprise a few people, but it shouldn’t. If you ask me, we all need to stop underestimating our human capacity to forgive.
Lauren Stacks: One of the things that intrigued me the most about the book was your description of Near North Side Chicago in the late-1960s. The neighborhood has changed drastically since then. Have you visited that area recently? What differences stand out to you the most?
Shawn Shiflett: It’s now a gentrified neighborhood for the wealthy, but I still couldn’t help but feel a nostalgic connection to it. My favorite “version” of the neighborhood was in the mid 70s. That’s when Lincoln Park had a synergy created by a cultural mix of people, and no one group had the upper hand. Those were exciting times. When I drove by Waller High School (renamed Lincoln Park High), it looks so much better now than it did in my day of being a student there—spruced up from top to bottom and turned into a city-block-sized campus. The Cabrini Green Housing Project is gone, torn down for its valuable real estate. Admittedly, I have mixed feelings about that . . . very mixed feelings. Yes, times change, but it shouldn’t always be at the expense of the poor. We are awfully good at sweeping the poor under the rug in this country.
Hey, Liberal! by Shawn Shiflett
Chicago Review Press
September 1, 2016