Stories That Reclaim the Future

From Roger Dean’s album cover for Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe.

My father and I saw each other only three times before he died. The first was when I was about ten, the second was in my early twenties, and the last doesn’t matter right now. I want to tell you about the second time, when I went up to Syracuse to visit and he tried to make me join the GOP.

Let me back up a little and explain that my mother is a black woman from Uganda and my dad was a white man from Syracuse, New York. He and my mother met in New York City in the late sixties, got married, had me, and promptly divorced. My mother and I stayed in Queens while my dad returned to Syracuse. He remarried quickly and had another son with my stepmother. Paul.

When I finished college I enrolled in graduate school for writing. I’d paid for undergrad with loans and grants, and debt already loomed over me. I showed up at my dad’s place hoping he’d cosign for my grad-school loans. I felt he owed me since he hadn’t been in my life at all. Also, I felt like I’d been on an epic quest just to reach this point. I got into Cornell University, but boy did I hate being there. Long winters, far from New York City, and the kind of dog-eat-dog atmosphere that would make a Wall Street trader sweat. But I’d graduated. And now I wanted to go back to school. More than that, I wanted to become a writer. Couldn’t my dad see me as a marvel? Couldn’t he support me just this once?

Nope.

At the time I felt incensed. In hindsight, I see he was a married man with a wife and a teenager to support; he worked as a parole officer, made a decent salary, but the man had never been well-off even once in his life. He wasn’t cruel about it, but he would not help. 

With the question of the loan out of the way, my father and brother invited me out to dinner. I still felt angry but I went along. Maybe if I sulked in front of him he’d change his mind. Maybe, even with the disappointment, I still wanted to be around this stranger, my father. We went to a Chinese buffet they liked. Endless dumplings and beef fried rice and chicken wings were offered up as a consolation prize.

On the ride back to their place, my father turned on the radio. This was 1995, and the voice playing through the speakers was Mr. Rush Limbaugh. These days I think Limbaugh, while still popular, has retreated a ways into the far-right antimatter universe. Back then, he was trailblazing the same hustle Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham would refine: scaring old white people for money. My dad was an old white person, and he loved Rush Limbaugh.

I can’t remember what kind of bullshit Limbaugh was spewing. What I do remember is sitting in the front seat of my father’s car while he and my brother shouted at me. “Listen! Listen! Rush is telling the truth!” For the whole twenty-minute ride, these three men—my dad, my brother, and Rush—bellowed at me. I felt queasy from all the General Tso’s chicken I’d eaten at the buffet. But I felt even queasier with concern for my brother.

My father’s second wife was Filipina. This meant my brother, Paul, was half Filipino. So the rhetoric of Limbaugh and my dad—anti-immigrant and virulently xenophobic—was literally about my brother and his mother. And yet Paul parroted the phrases with no sense of irony.

Paul shouted from the back of the car about “environmental wackos” whose policies were going to cause a “second violent American revolution.” Where else could a fifteen-year-old raised in Syracuse have learned these ideas and phrases but from this blowhard? Not even my father got as pumped as his second son. Paul had such a sweet face most of the time. A big, guileless smile, and the hints of a puberty mustache that only made him seem more fragile, highlighted all the growing up he had yet to do. But what was he being raised to become? He couldn’t be just like my father; his skin and his features would mark him. But these beliefs sure wouldn’t make him welcome among those who looked more like him. He might become a kind of orphan, a man without a clan.

As the car pulled into my father’s garage, I realized Paul had basically spent his entire life being told a story by my father, by Rush Limbaugh, and, in the broadest sense, by the United States as a whole: the story of America, as related by a wildly unreliable narrator.

*

On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump won the election to become the president of the United States. On that night I recalled the car ride with my father and brother twenty-one years earlier. The familiar sensation of having men shouting lies in my ear: Listen! Listen! He’s telling the truth!

My wife and I turned off the TV soon after the election results were called. We got into bed and for a while we lay there quietly. My wife is a writer and an academic, too. Over the years she’s given me countless insights about the hurdles women face as they struggle for unbiased student evaluations, for promotions, for tenure. Her stories of the countless humiliations and the second-guessing and the problem of “unlikability” returned to me on election night. I felt like a child who must be told something a thousand times before he truly understands it. I turned to my wife and said, “Damn, this country hates women.”

She said, “You’re only now just figuring that out?”

She patted me gently, kissed me once. She eyed me with the same look of concern, even pity, I must’ve shown Paul all those years ago. My brother hadn’t been the only one being fed falsehoods all his life.

*

In January 2000, on C-SPAN, Brian Lamb interviewed Howard Zinn—historian and author of A People’s History of the United States. The jacket copy describes the book as “the only volume to tell America’s story from the point of view of—and in the words of—America’s women, factory workers, African-Americans, Native Americans, the working poor, and immigrant laborers.” The cover of an edition published back in 2005 also states: “More than two million copies sold.”

At one point in the interview, Zinn explains that the first edition of his now-legendary text came out in 1980 and had a print run of five thousand hardcovers. He laughed at the number, as one can only do with the benefit of hindsight. “They didn’t know what would happen to it,” he said. “Neither did I.”

Zinn’s history of the United States begins not with Columbus discovering America, but with the Arawak of the Bahama Islands discovering Columbus. His large ship appears and the Arawak swim out to greet him and his crew. Zinn quotes Columbus’s journals: “They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features … They do not bear arms, and do not know them … They would make fine servants … With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” This is on the first damn page of the book. Try to contemplate what an educational tremor this must have caused in 1980.

Hell, even today whole swaths of the U.S. population regularly go into a rage at the idea of genuine historical accuracy. In 2010, the Texas Board of Education, for instance, made use of a history textbook that included this gem: “Most white Southerners swallowed whatever resentment they felt over African-American suffrage and participation in government.” I’m looking forward to the follow-up textbook about all the white Southerners who protested against Jim Crow laws!

Only two pages further into his book, Zinn relates, in a short paragraph, the experience of a sailor in Columbus’s crew. On October 12, 1492, a man named Rodrigo spots the sands of an island in the Bahamas in the moonlight. A promise has been made to all onboard: The first man to spot land will be rewarded with a pension of ten thousand maravedis (medieval Spanish coins; it would amount to about five hundred and forty U.S. dollars today). That was ten thousand maravedis a year for life. Rodrigo gave word of what he’d seen, but he never received the prize. Why? Columbus said he’d seen it the evening before. Columbus collected the loot. Oh, Christopher. You shady motherfucker.

A People’s Future of the United States—an anthology of speculative stories I’ve put together with John Joseph Adams—is, in a sense, inspired not by those Arawak men and women who swam out to greet Columbus’s ship nor by Rodrigo, who was cheated of his reward. Instead this book is inspired by the countless generations of offspring who lost the right to forge futures of their own making.

Zinn had already written about our past, so my coeditor and I decided to ask a gang of incredible writers to imagine the years, decades, even the centuries, to come. And to have tales told by those, and/or about those, who history often sees fit to forget. “There is no such thing as impartial history,” Zinn once said. He added, “The chief problem in historical honesty is not outright lying. It is omission or de-emphasis of important data.”

Think of this collection of stories, then, as important speculative data. A portrait of this country as it might become, the future of the United States.

*

“We are seeking stories that explore new forms of freedom, love, and justice: narratives that release us from the chokehold of the history and mythology of the past … and writing that gives us new futures to believe in.”

That’s the gist of how our invitations read. John and I gave our writers a lot of leeway when it came to the stories themselves. One of the benefits of soliciting an astoundingly talented crew is that you can trust them to interpret the theme in ways that will be much more startling and ambitious than you could ever guess.

So many of these tales are vivid with struggle and hardship, but its characters don’t flee, they fight—whether it’s N. K. Jemisin’s dragon riders, A. Merc Rustad’s covert commandos, or Alice Sola Kim’s time-traveling best friend. While some of these stories depict battles with external foes there are also those that wrestle with the enemies within. Violet Allen’s characters are caught in mind games with troubling consequences and Kai Cheng Thom’s must decide if they will change themselves or change the world. G. Willow Wilson turns a classroom exam into a test of communal bravery and Charles Yu relates the tale of a fight with an android that would’ve totally voted for Trump.

All that and I’ve hardly touched on the depth and breadth of brilliance in this anthology. As this collection came together, I found myself wishing I’d had this book with me in Syracuse all those years ago. I might’ve turned toward my brother, Paul, and put this book in his hands. I could’ve told him that this was the United States, a much broader portrait of his country than anything he would ever hear on right-wing talk radio. I might’ve asked him to imagine a future where he didn’t have to parrot the speech of bullies and tormentors. Instead, he might speak his own language, which is to say his own truth. He might come to believe he mattered most in a story. Not secondary, but primary. Not the foreign villain, but the homegrown hero. I could’ve used it to convince him the future belonged to him as much as anyone.

If I’m honest, I could’ve used this book myself long ago. Hell, I still need this book. Maybe you do, too. You might know others just as desperate for stories like these. If so, pass them on. Because the future is ours.

Let’s get it.

 

Victor LaValle is the author of six previous works of fiction: three novels, two novellas, and a collection of short stories. His novels have been included in best-of-the-year lists by the New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, The Nation, and Publishers Weekly, among others. He has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Book Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the key to Southeast Queens. He lives in New York City with his wife and kids, and teaches at Columbia University.

Excerpted from A People’s Future of the United States, edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams. Copyright 2019 by Victor LaValle. Excerpted by permission of One World, an imprint of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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