When I was growing up, my mother liked to tell people the story of my fifth birthday party. It was both unsettling and triumphant, the kind of story that could be made to sound hilarious even though it wasn’t really. Weeks before the party, after I presented her with a list of names that she had assumed were the other children in my class, my mother had sent me to school with carefully labeled invitations. My November birthday meant I’d had to be specially tested to be allowed even to register for kindergarten, and I remember that process being very formal—we had to go to the office of some kind of certified specialist, and I had to perform a series of tasks while she took notes— but I had subsequently been promoted from kindergarten to first grade in a far less official meeting, held in the principal’s office, where I read aloud all of the material with which I was presented, starting with a Bob’s Big Boy children’s menu. It was dinosaur-themed, and I stumbled over the word pterodactyl, but still, my audition was a success. That September, I had entered first grade a few months before I turned five. When the guests for my party arrived, and child after child towered over me, my mother was confused. These were not first graders. They were friendly and polite and ate their cake, they collected their goody bags and had a good time, but they were clearly too old to be there.
My mother asked some questions. The party guests reported that they were third graders. They’d been invited because I sat at their lunch table every day. I told my mother that I had been sitting with the third graders because there was a boy in my first-grade class, Tony P., who was seven and bigger than the other kids, and he had told everyone Black kids couldn’t sit at our lunch table. The first graders were afraid of him, but no one in the third grade cared about Tony P., and some of them knew me from the bus stop at our apartment complex. Hence, my new friends. Horrified, my mother called the school on Monday. They told her that couldn’t possibly be true, that the cafeteria was monitored, and no one would let a child be bullied away from their own class’s table, nor would a first grader be permitted to sit with third graders every day. On Tuesday, my mother took an early lunch hour and drove in from DC wearing a suit and a string of faux pearls. She walked into the cafeteria at lunchtime and found me, just as we’d all reported, sitting at the third-grade table. After noting this to the teachers and cafeteria staff, she walked me to my own lunch table and sat with me while we ate lunch. She asked some more questions. She made it clear that if anyone gave me a hard time about sitting at the lunch table, she would come every day and eat lunch with us for as long as was necessary. I’m not sure whether this was meant to be a threat—in my recollection, the first graders were mostly enamored with her. In any case, she didn’t have to return.
When my mother first started telling this story to people, she got to the part with Tony P. and said, “and this monster was telling my child she couldn’t sit at her own lunch table.” Once, when I overheard her tell the story that way, I said, “He’s not a monster; he’s just a little boy,” and that became part of my mother’s telling of the story, a coda in which her desire to call him a monster met my own youthful empathy and was gently corrected. It’s possible I meant my interjection exactly the way she heard it, that I meant to provide a moral reframing and remind my mother not to write off a child’s capacity to grow. But I was so often earnest and openhearted as a child that people sometimes failed to notice when I was ruthlessly pragmatic. It seems also possible that what I meant was monsters were hard to defeat, but Tony P. was just a boy who was scared of third graders.
I’ve been thinking about this story lately because I’ve been thinking about how to tell it, or how many ways it could be told, and that feels connected to my thinking about what a story is, or what I’m most interested in a story being. When my first book, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, came out and I was asked to talk about fiction, I would often talk about it in terms of agency and empathy. Agency, I said with the confidence of a twenty-something debut writer, is what allows us to emotionally or ethically invest in a character, what saves a story from feeling flat or didactic. Yes, people are tethered to their structural realities, but they become characters with depth when we allow them to make choices, no matter their circumstances. Agency was how I was taught to think about story, and it was a lesson that often served me well, that gave me permission to write characters who acted as much as they reacted, who were allowed the complexity of their competing desires, who lived in the real world and often within the particular constraints placed upon them as Black women, but weren’t flattened by it. And empathy—well, empathy was the whole point of the endeavor, wasn’t it? What was my job if not to trick a reader into feeling someone else’s feelings? And what was the reward but to see how that reader might emerge differently from the experience? I was never naïve enough to believe in empathy as an all-purpose balm or a universal good, but I believed in its potential capacity, believed it could be coaxed and developed the way a muscle could be trained, and we might all be better for it.
A decade later, when I published my second collection, The Office of Historical Corrections, I got asked a lot of the same questions about what makes a story, or what made me want to be a writer, and my answers were different. I didn’t care as much about agency. The book I had written, while not autobiographical (or even autofictional), came out of a particularly long and self-affirming stretch of grief and anxiety, personal and national. For years I felt like I was being told to resist my most catastrophizing impulses, only to have most of them turn out to be right. I was interested in that anxiety, in how we learn to live around the things we can see coming but can’t control, how we live around the simultaneous fear that we are making the wrong choices, and that in the grand scheme of things our choices might not matter at all. I had also grown skeptical of empathy, or at least of the way we often fetishize it in the arts. Empathy—as an interpersonal choice between equals—can perhaps save our lives, or at least save some of what makes them worth living. But empathy—as a political strategy—says that if you try hard enough to prove to power that you’re human, it might decide not to kill you. Empathy, then, as a moral framework for art, suggests that the way to change the world is to affirm and appeal to the morality of power without condemning it or scaring it away or actually transferring any of it. (I’ve never pretended to have an interest in trying to fully separate the world of art from the world of politics: politics is, broadly, the system of values by which we decide who deserves to live and who deserves to die, and there is no art that exists entirely outside of the question of basic humanity; I think it’s wise to be suspicious of any art that purports to be.)
I brought my skepticism into the classroom. I thought about where the ideas about craft that workshops often accept as fundamental truths about characterization and narrative—that everyone has their own version of a story and few people inhabit the version where they are the story’s villain—bled into an unhealthy culture of valuing “balance” above all else, where balance means respect for “both” or “all” sides of an argument, even if some of the sides are empirically untrue or deliberately dehumanizing. I told my students that I might be done with empathy: that, as a craft concept, it might actually be harmful; that increasingly, it felt clear to me that empathy was a resource that people hoard and restrict access to like they do any other; that, like all resources, it bends in the direction of power; that we, as fiction writers, might need to interrogate our own role in the particular cultural toxicity that suggests all versions of a story are equally valid as long as some human somewhere believes they are.
I felt exhausted by being asked to demonstrate empathy for people whose racism or misogyny meant they could say they wanted me dead or wanted my civil rights to always be an active question, or could simply harm me and say they hadn’t, but my own fear or anger, or simply my honesty, would be framed as a lack of civility, as an error in strategy or character that needed to be corrected. You can’t invite a person and the person threatening to kill them to a party and blame the person being threatened for ruining the party by not showing up; however, empathy seemed, at times, to be the thing insisting that you could. Could I imagine my way into a world where someone who had done me harm could get empathy and I could too, or was empathy in this case a zero-sum game? Could I imagine a way to write a story without worrying about this balance?