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CHICAGO – Debut author Nancy Johnson wanted to tell human interest stories when she was a broadcast news journalist years ago, but she recalls there were too few opportunities to do that.
Now, the Chicago native has all the opportunity she can handle with her first book, “The Kindest Lie.” The novel tells the story of Ruth Tuttle, a Black engineer living in Bronzeville with her husband. The couple are celebrating the 2008 presidential election of Barack Obama when a truth from Ruth’s youth is revealed: Before she went off to get an Ivy League education, she had a child that she gave up for adoption. The secret sets Tuttle on the path home to fictional town Ganton, Indiana, to track down the child’s whereabouts. During her search for answers, Tuttle takes readers on her journey, a journey that brings a white boy nicknamed Midnight into her life and raises questions of class, race, identity, forgiveness and sacrifice.
“The Kindest Lie” took Johnson six years to perfect, and the result has been critically lauded. It appeared on several 2021 must-read lists, including ones in Oprah, Elle and Good Housekeeping as well as the Chicago Tribune.
“It’s surreal and a lot more than I expected,” she said. “I don’t know how to describe it, except that it’s just been wonderful to see the acclaim that the book is receiving. But most importantly has been the response from readers, people who read it and connect with it. I’ve heard from people with some tragic stories. Someone messaged me about the fact that her mother or grandmother committed suicide, and there were a lot of things that weren’t dealt with in their family and reading my book just provided a certain degree of understanding and healing for this woman. When I hear these personal stories from people, and seeing how my book has brought them some new understanding or new insight, that’s more than I could ask for.”
We talked with Johnson about her novel and the conversations that started in 2020 about class, race and hope. The following interview has been condensed and edited.
Q: Why this novel now?
A: I actually started writing it around 2013. I was inspired by the events of 2008 with the presidential election of Barack Obama. It was a time of such palpable hope for a lot of people in the country, because we were transcending a barrier by electing a Black president for the first time. And it was very hopeful for me too, kind of bittersweet. My father was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in 2008. I convinced him to vote early, which he did. He cast his last vote for Obama; he died about two weeks after the election. At the same time, I kept hearing people say that we were now entering a post-racial era, because we had a Black president, and I knew that was not true. I could see how divided we were on social media feeds. I was just seeing the vitriol there, particularly between Black and white America. And so I was interested in exploring that in terms of how far apart we are as people as well as looking at some of what we have in common too. At that time, we were going through the Great Recession. So it was a time of economic anxiety. And I believe that economic anxiety exacerbates racial tension. There are so many parallels with these two periods mirroring each other, because we were making history with our election of Obama in 2008. In 2021, we’ve elected a Black and South Asian woman as our vice president, which is historic. We see racial tensions in both periods of time. Just so many parallels between the two.
Q: Who is the audience for the book?
A: Because I’m Black, quite often I’m writing for our community, because growing up I didn’t see myself on the page, in the books that I read very often. I really wanted to write a book for Black people to read, and for us to see ourselves in our full complexity, that there’s not just one way to be Black in America. As I kept going with the story and thinking about the racial divide, I was interested in white America reading it — and connecting with the story and understanding the Black community, understanding racism in a new way. As I was revising and editing this last year-and-a-half, because we were going through all of this racial violence in the country, so many white people started their anti-racism curriculum. They started reading all these anti-racism books, and a lot of those books are nonfiction. And I started thinking about my audience being some of those white people who were reading those anti-racism books, because this was a work of fiction and I think there’s a power in a piece of fiction, to build empathy and to help people walk in the footsteps of somebody whose life experiences are different from their own. Because when they’re reading these anti-racism nonfiction books, there’s this tendency among some to say, “OK, well, that’s somebody else’s problem. I’m not racist. I wasn’t alive during slavery.” So not really taking that accountability and responsibility for how they’re benefiting from it. I think through a book like this, it’s not preaching anything to them. I’m not being didactic at all, but they can just fall into the characters in a story, and understand issues of race and class that way, and it’s a lot less threatening and a better way to engage.
Q: Can you tell me more about the title?
A: When I say “The Kindest Lie,” I’m talking about the lies that we tell for the best reasons, with the best of intentions. And the lies that we tell to protect the people we love; those are the kinds of lies that you see Mama and Eli telling in the book and the lies that Ruth is telling others in her life all these years, that lie of omission, not talking about the fact that she has a son that she walked away from and the lies that she tells herself because she wanted this better life. Also on a macro level, it’s about the lies that America has told itself, that it is more honorable and decent and equitable than it really is.
Q: Everybody started having these conversations about race in 2020; do you think people are really in it?
A: I do fear that a lot of what we see with the dialogue around race may be more performative. I do think there are some people who want to have a real dialogue, but they don’t know what to do, because we can talk about race and racism all day long, but what are the solutions? How do we move beyond that? How do we fix it? I think part of it is acknowledgment — acknowledging racism, acknowledging white privilege. Once you acknowledge it, then we can start the conversation about how we fix it. I think as long as we stay in that echo chamber of talking to the people who agree with us, that we’re never going to move beyond where we are today. We’ve had this 400-plus-year history of America, with its foot on our necks and so it’s going to take more than just talking for us to be able to rise.
Q: Do you think the conversations we are having about race and class now are different from the conversations we were having when Obama was first elected? Have we evolved at all?
Q: I would say in the Black community we’ve evolved to the point where we’re tired of just talking. We want to see action. It’s about moving beyond the talk and putting some plans and some action behind the rhetoric. At least from what I could see this past year, I feel like there are more people who are beginning to recognize and understand white privilege and what that means. I think they’re starting to understand it more and to see it. The next step is really about what are we going to do about it.
‘The Kindest Lie’
By Nancy Johnson, William Morrow, 336 pages, $27.99