Nina Revoyr, author of the Lambda Literary Award-winning Southland (Akashic Books, 2003) and LA Times Book Prize finalist The Age of Dreaming (Akashic, 2008), as well as The Necessary Hunger (Simon & Schuster, 1997), responds to an open fan letter from Lambda Award winning-author Ellis Avery about Revoyr’s fourth novel, Wingshooters which came out last spring from Akashic Books. (Avery’s new novel, The Last Nude, was published by Riverhead in January).
Congratulations again on the publication and well-deserved critical reception of your new novel. A starred review from Booklist saluted Wingshooters as a “shattering Northern variation on To Kill a Mockingbird” that “drives to the very heart of tragic ignorance, unreason and savagery.” To that assessment I would add that Wingshooters is the book Americans need to read instead of The Help. Kathryn Stockett’s novel, for all its strengths, takes a simplistic stance when it breaks the white population of Jackson, Mississippi into personable, empathy-worthy “good whites” and comically evil racist ones. Wingshooters, on the other hand, offers more nuanced and harder truths: the most beloved character in this novel, Michelle’s grandfather Charlie, is just as racist as the rest of the town that formed him, despite his race-blind love for his half-Japanese granddaughter.
Moreover, your analysis extends beyond racism to investigate a broader and deeper human contempt for weakness. Your book seems to argue—subtly, deftly—that the attitudes that lead to Earl Watson’s murder of Mrs. Garrett are the same ones that fuel both his abuse of his son Kevin and his friends’ willingness to ignore and minimize that abuse. Not even Michelle is exempt from the corrupting power of contempt for the weak: she, too, discovers that her pity for the abused child is mixed up with resentment, and in the end, when one of her peers bullies her and she fights back, she doesn’t stop when she has the upper hand, not even when she draws blood and her bully’s eyes “bulge with pain and fear.”
In Wingshooters, there is no Miss Skeeter Phelan, heroically helping the voices of people of color be heard. Instead, we have a bullied child who admits that if Mr. Garrett had not reported the oozing wounds on the body of Kevin Watson, the son of Michelle’s grandfather’s best friend Earl Watson, “I would never have said a thing.” What’s more, after the chain of tragic events uncoils at the shocking end of the novel, Michelle falls silent for months on end.
Neither, in Wingshooters, is there an Atticus Finch, heroically marshaling the law in defense of people of color. I’d even go so far as to say that Charlie LeBeau is an anti-Atticus: Atticus fails to get justice for Tom Robinson, but he makes the attempt for all the right reasons. Charlie LeBeau succeeds in getting justice for Mrs. Garrett insofar as he kills her murderer, but he had no intention to do so. After killing his best friend, Earl Watson, when Earl threatens his granddaughter’s life, Charlie breaks down and weeps. “‘Damnit, Earl. Why’d you have to do this?’ he cried. ‘It wasn’t worth it. Why’d you ever have to let it get this far? Why’d you give up everything, for this?’” Part of what breaks Michelle’s heart about her grandfather is that “by what he said to Earl’s body in his moment of despair, it was clear that the Garretts weren’t a part of it. He was not avenging them or defending them or punishing Earl; he didn’t think about the Garretts at all…To me this was unbearable. …And this too: he didn’t see that people treated the Garretts the same way they’d treated my mother—and me.”
I love it that you offer a full and loving portrait of Charlie LeBeau, despite his blindness to the ways in which his contempt for the Garretts confuses and cripples the granddaughter he adores. At the end, when Michelle’s father dismisses Charlie—his own father—as “a bigot,” he’s the one who comes off as ignorant, rather than Charlie, and when the adult Michelle quotes “a woman who was trying to love me” as saying “I always forget that you’re half-Japanese and half-redneck,” it’s the redneck part of her summation that comes as a slap in the face.
From the scene I just quoted toward the end, we know that the adult Michelle, while primarily a loner, dates women, which allows room for your light-but-masterful handling of Michelle/Mikey’s lesbian childhood, both in terms of her butch-sounding identification with her grandfather and simultaneous rejection of the strictures placed on women in her grandmother’s world, and in terms of her childlike but real experience of nascent desire for women, such as when she twists her ankle and Mrs. Garrett carries her into the clinic. “As I became aware of her thin shoulders, her strong hands, even the press of her breasts, I remember thinking that I couldn’t recall the last time a woman had held me. Had this trip lasted more than about twenty seconds, I might have gotten far too used to it.” It’s a beautiful and poignant line, especially given the moment later in the same scene when Michelle and Mrs. Garrett, two-thirds of the entire population of color of a racist community, share a moment in which they tearfully half-acknowledge their embattled state. I was moved to tears by that moment myself.
Thank you again, Nina, for writing such a powerful and beautiful book.
First of all, thank you so very much for taking the time to read, and write about, my book—especially in the midst of all the wonderful activity around your own new novel! As I mentioned to you before, I’m so honored by your doing this.
And thank you for touching upon so many of the themes I was trying to address in Wingshooters. I love what you say about race and nuance. With the possible exception of Earl Watson, there are no unambiguous good guys or bad guys (or girls) among the white characters in Wingshooters, and that was intentional. When characters—or real-life people—are overtly and unquestionably racist, it makes it too easy for other folks to let themselves off the hook. But the most insidious forms of prejudice are often more subtle. In Wingshooters, it’s not the most overtly racist characters who are the saddest to me—it’s the ones who should know better, and act better, but don’t.
As a protagonist, Mikey differs from Skeeter and Scout—as you’ve noted—because she herself is a person of color. She too is subjected to racism and bullying, and that makes all of her relationships, and actions, more complicated. Skeeter and Scout can take the stands they do, not only because they’re white, but because they come from families of privilege. They may seem to be flouting the old order, but they still represent power. Mikey, on the other hand, has to be more careful, particularly in terms of how she relates to Earl Watson. And she’s drawn to the Garretts not because she wants to help them, but because she identifies with them. She also admires them. The Garretts are professionals, and in that sense, they occupy a different space than the black characters in the other two books. They are more highly educated and accomplished than most of the whites in town—which is part of why the townspeople are so upset by them.
I’m so glad that you identify Charlie—despite his many faults—as the emotional center of the book. At heart, Wingshooters is a love story between a kid and her grandfather. Charlie is the most nurturing, dependable presence in Mikey’s life, her idol and protector. But he is also a deeply prejudiced man, and his racism leads to, or at least enables, a lot of harm. And part of what happens for Mikey is that she has to adjust to this fuller picture of him, to the realization that her hero isn’t infallible.
I think that Charlie fails to respond properly to Kevin’s abuse out of a misguided sense of loyalty. The idea that Earl is physically harming his child is too horrible to contemplate, and so he doesn’t deal with it; he just blindly sticks by his friend. This might have been part of what happened in the sex abuse scandal atPennState. A lot of old-school guys can’t deal with the idea of one of their buddies hurting or raping children, and so they choose to look the other way. To me, it’s these dynamics, more than a reaction to weakness, that cause Charlie to behave as he does.
That said, Charlie and his friends are definitely examples of a certain kind of traditional masculinity. They live by a code of “real manhood,” which includes things like hunting and sports and having physically demanding, blue-collar jobs. Mikey is very drawn to this way of being—particularly since she associates it with feeling protected by her grandfather. But it also has limitations, and some of those, yes, fuel the troubling events in the book.
On a related note, the other thing I was trying to address is the way that violence begets violence. If you are raised in a world where people deal with things by violent means, that is what you learn—whether in rural Wisconsin or inner city Los Angeles. Kevin’s father was abused, and he abuses Kevin in turn. Mikey is bullied and beaten up, and in her moment of trauma and grief, she reacts with violence herself. I don’t think it would have been believable, at least not to me, for Mikey to have escaped this world unscathed.
One of the unspoken things in the book is that Charlie, as well as his brother-in-law, Uncle Pete, clearly understand how butch Mikey is. Charlie’s the one, after all, who names Michelle “Mikey,” and he encourages her to hunt and fish, to play baseball, to roam around the country with his hunting dog—all over her grandmother’s objections. This, too, I think, is a mark of Charlie’s love—his ability to embrace her and even encourage her boyishness, rather than trying to get her to be “more like a girl.” I think it’s the legacy of his unconditional love—and the troubles and losses that occurred despite it—that make it so hard for Mikey to open up to anyone as an adult —including the woman who makes that crack you quoted. And that was another thing I really wanted to touch upon—how the things that happen in childhood really do affect and shape who we become as adults.
Thank you again, Ellis, for reading and writing about my book. And congratulations on the publication of The Last Nude. It’s evocative, smart, romantic, and heart-breaking, in just the kind of way I most love. It’s flat-out wonderful, and I’m so happy that so many other people think so, too.