By Susan Vallee | Photography courtesy of Maurice Ruffin
Have you heard the buzz about We Cast a Shadow? This debut novel by author Maurice Ruffin is causing a stir for the best reasons. The story is set in a dystopian future and focuses on a father who wants his son to have a better life than he has had—a life free of racism. His hopes are dashed as the dark birthmark on his biracial son’s face begins to grow and spread, threatening to blot out the whiteness that protects him.
Ruffin handles the weighty reality (both real and imagined) of racism with the deftness of a comedian who makes you laugh, but leaves you unsettled and squirming at the realness of the joke.
“Frankly, reactions seem to be tied to race,” he says of feedback on his book. “Some white readers are surprised by the depth and breadth of racism in the novel—not all white readers, but some. On the other hand, not a single black person or person of color has said this. I think the differences in the perception of racism are one of our country’s greatest challenges.”
In We Cast a Shadow, altering one’s appearance is as simple as a medical procedure. Black skin can be turned white, noses can be slimmed, or lips can be shaved and reshaped so a person can conform to society’s physical ideal. Ruffin centers his vision of a not-so-far-fetched future on a young boy named Nigel, the son of (white) Penny and the (black) unnamed narrator. Nigel’s character begins as a little boy who is anxious to please his parents. The author contrasts that pure love and willingness to please with the father’s impulse to shape his son’s whole life, but this desire becomes increasingly twisted by the father’s fear and self-loathing.
“I was inspired to write the book by many current events, like the murder of Trayvon Martin and America’s reaction to our first black president,” Ruffin explains. “But I also wanted to write a book that was in conversation with works by authors such as Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright. I wouldn’t be an author without them. I feel like I’m part of that conversation, and that makes me beam.”
Ruffin, a native of New Orleans and one of a handful of African American lawyers in the city, wrote the book only he could write. It tells his story and the stories of his friends, his neighbors, and others in his community. It shows the many, many ways fear can corrupt people. He often tells fellow writers, “Write the book that only you can write, because no one else carries your obsessions, your point of view, or your version of love.”
“Write the book that only you can write, because no one else carries your obsessions, your point of view, or your version of love.”
The book has been praised by a long list of national publications, including the New York Times, Editors’ Choice by the New York Times Book Review, the LA Times, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, NPR, Southern Living, Parade, the Associated Press, Poets & Writers, and many more.
While traveling around the country to attend book fairs and signings (he spoke to Escape to Create members in Seaside, Florida, and signed at Sundog Books this past March), Ruffin is still delighted by the reactions his book is creating. “I’m a published author of a book that’s been reviewed nationally!” he gushes. “I walk into bookstores and libraries and, bam—there’s my novel! People chat about my book every day on social media. Folks I’ve never met are having book clubs to talk about it, which might be my favorite thing ever. It’s a good book for book clubs and students.”
Ruffin’s second book, a collection of short stories, will also be published by Penguin Random House. “My novel was set in a fictional city I created, but the collection will likely be all New Orleans stories,” he says. “I love my hometown so much; it’s nice to represent it in the fictional world.”
The city has loved him back. His face was on the cover of local newspaper Gambit, making it somewhat difficult, he says, to walk around the city unnoticed. And the Times-Picayune has proudly reviewed and covered his success. To date, Ruffin says, he is the only African American in the city to be published by a major publishing house.
“I hope my book opens a few eyes,” he expounds. “If you want to know how it feels for many to be black in America, apparently my book can help with that.”
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Visit PenguinRandomHouse.com to learn more about We Cast a Shadow or pick up your copy in bookstores and online now.