In Nancy Johnson’s debut novel, The Kindest Lie, a story of desire and identity unfolds around a young, Yale-educated Black chemical engineer named Ruth. Her story, told with attention and sincerity, is not a simple narrative of homecoming. Rather, Ruth, who returns to her Indiana hometown in the midst of an economic depression, comes to reveal much about the struggles and divides in American at the beginning of the Obama administration. Class conflicts, racial disparity, and personal struggles anchor this intergenerational novel; yet, it’s the novel’s dialogue around those issues that spurs a hopefulness which projects beyond any singular presidential term.
I spoke with Johnson on January 6th—the day the US Capitol was stormed.
Your book begins on Barack Obama’s election night. Why start there?
The election of Obama was my inspiration for the book. I wrote it at the beginning of President Obama’s second term, but I was always thinking back to his first election. The country was just so deeply divided at that time—which it still is, particularly around racial lines. There was such vitriol; but, there was also this sense of hope. I kept thinking about that contrast. It was also very personal for me because, in November of 2008, my father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. I knew how much he wanted Obama to be president. When he was in the hospital, the doctor asked him, to see if he was lucid: “Who’s the president?” And, in a croaky voice, he replied “Barack Obama!” This was in October, so the doctor responded with “Oh, not quite yet.”
I knew how hopeful my father was and convinced him to vote early. He was alive when Obama was elected president, though he couldn’t remember many of the details. Here’s a man who survived the Great Depression, World War II, and Jim Crow, and he got to witness the elections of America’s first black president. It was a hopeful time but, also, a bittersweet time for me personally.
I remember so many people saying after Obama was elected that the country had entered this post-racial era; but, I just knew that was a fallacy because the divide between Black and White America, in particular, was so great. I was really interested in starting the book at this time of great celebration and hope, but then, also, showing what happens when some of that hope deteriorates because the problems that are so deeply embedded in America are still there.
There’s a mechanism of interrogation that persists throughout your book, whether it’s challenging the idea of scarcity or questioning what upward mobility looks like. Could you tell us a bit more about this aspect of your book?
We hadn’t achieved the success we thought. So much of electing Obama as president was symbolic but the substantive part of it would really be up to us. Obama talks about that himself too—particularly in his campaigns. It is indeed up to us to be the change we want to see in the world. It’s not about who sits in the Oval Office; it’s really about the people. I was interested in exploring mobility and scarcity between Black and White America, particularly working-class Americans.
In the book, I wanted to explore the perception that in order for me to be successful, or for my family to be successful, or for my children to advance, that means that other people can’t have as much as I have: if other people get ahead then that means there’s less for me and my children. We see this kind of thinking play out in The Kindest Lie with the character of Butch Boyd, a White man, who’s down on his luck and has lost his job at an autoplant. He has a son, Midnight, whom he loves very much and wants to see be successful. He wants to protect his future; but, he sees the Black folks around him as a threat to securing that future. And then you have Ruth, who is also trying to pursue the American dream. Born into poverty, she ends up being very materially successful. She’s made all kinds of sacrifices too—she’s left her child behind. What greater sacrifice is there than to leave your baby behind so that you can achieve your dream? There’s also her grandmother who made a lot of questionable choices and sacrifices to ensure Ruth’s success. All these characters are trying to lift themselves up or trying to lift the people they love up. Sometimes, they make questionable decisions and choices to get there; but, it’s all out of this desire to be better and do better.
Sacrifice is not without expectation in this book. What was it like to script that complexity?
I didn’t want to demonize the character of Mama, who makes these questionable decisions to ensure her granddaughter has the kind of life she wants her to have. There are expectations attached to the decisions she makes. Mama asks Ruth to leave her child behind to pursue engineering, go to Yale, and never look back. That’s the expectation she has: I’m going to take care of things and make it easier, but you will go forth and leave this place and not return. That’s something that haunts Ruth. She lives with the expectations of her grandparents, always trying to live up to their standards of success. And it has such ripple effects: her marriage; her ability to move forward; her inability to fully lean into a new life. This is a burden she has to carry.
How do ideas of family and community play out in your book?
I didn’t want this book to be a simple narrative of a woman leaving her child behind and moving on. I wanted Ruth to be multi-layered and complex. I had to figure out her motivations; but, also, the motivations of the people around her. I wanted to explore how tethered she was to her past. She’s got this past that she can’t outrun. Her family and community are part of her, no matter how far away she moves from them. Their expectations and desires define who she is and the choices she comes to make. We don’t realize how much of an influence both family and community have on us.
There’s such a plurality of Black experience in this book. Was scripting of multiple Black lives important?
So many people believe that the Black community is a monolith, that there’s only one way to be Black in America. I tried to show the many facets of being Black. We see Ruth as a Black teenager growing up in small town Indiana plagued by limitations. When she’s in school, her intellectual growth is stunted and yet she continues to beat the odds and achieve. As an engineer in Chicago, she has achieved a fair degree of success; and yet when she and her husband are on the “L,” they encounter a White cop harassing a Black boy and they’re rigid with fear. Nothing, at that point, has happened but it’s that pervasive fear that Black people have of “what could happen.” We’re so conditioned by racialized violence. Ruth’s money, her degree from Yale, her Engineering pedigree—these things can’t inoculate her from that type of experience of being Black in America.
One thing that was really important to me was a scene with two characters, Midnight and Corey: a White boy and a Black boy in a convenience store. The experience of two boys, who are innocent in so many ways, becomes a different experience through the lens of being a little White boy versus being a Black boy, especially in terms of how authority figures treat you. Corey is so aware of those differences, despite his innocence. His parents have had the talk with him. He knows what he can and can’t get away with. He knows where the boundaries are for him as a Black boy, in America, at age eleven, whereas Midnight is oblivious to those differences. Though Midnight grew up in some degree of poverty and with limited opportunity, he still has the privilege of being White and doesn’t have to worry about how he’ll be treated or profiled when he walks into a convenience store.
Two of your book’s main characters, Ruth and Midnight, could not be more different. And yet, they seem to be seeking something similar.
Ruth and Midnight are two characters who, on the surface, are complete opposites: you’ve got a Black woman and a White boy; you’ve got someone who has achieved upward mobility and a boy who’s part of the working poor. There are so many differences but, at the same time, there are a lot these characters share. They are both seeking love, family, acceptance. Both of them are a bit adrift; both of them are longing for that family connection. They are both science geeks and outsiders. Looking in, they both want to belong. When I brought the two of them together, I found that they fulfilled something the other was seeking. And, they both definitely were changed by the other.
I was interested in looking at the commonalities of Americans across race and class divisions. Quite often it’s hard to transcend those divides—and we see that in the evolution of Ruth and Midnight’s relationship.
This novel touches on issues of economic hardship, social positioning, and racial disparity, among others. It is also a novel filled with hope. How do you understand the two together?
I was very intentional about wanting to begin the book with a sense of hope, which I did, I think, with the change so many were seeking in the election of America’s first Black president. Then you see what happens when some of that hope evaporates and we move into the reality of people’s lives in economic despair during the middle of the Great Recession. I didn’t want to leave us in the valley; I wanted to show that we can rise out of that. But I also was not interested in a complete happily ever after either. I wanted to have these complex characters who go through really difficult times and circumstances that feel like the real world. And through that, I wanted to show that there is always that sense of hope and that understanding of challenge to come. So much of what we’re going through is cyclical. It repeats itself. We’re seeing that in America today. Much of what we were experiencing in 2008 is mirrored in what we’re going through today.
In writing this book, I kept thinking about how we talk past each other, how we’re all in our entrenched corners based on our cultural and racial identities. My goal is to open up a dialogue. We must have difficult conversations. People don’t like to talk about the issues of race in America. I believe that through the power of character and story we can get there. And for me, that’s hopeful.
The Kindest Lie
By Nancy Johnson
William Morrow & Company
Published February 2, 2021
Clancey D’Isa is a Daily Editor at Chicago Review of Books and the Director of Strategy and Development for the Seminary Co-op Bookstores.