Native Son by Richard Wright

Native Son by Richard Wright was first published on the 1st of March 1940. It is said to have been written for a white audience. Bigger Thomas, the main protagonist, has been criticised (or identified) as a caricature lacking the depth and truth of other black protagonists found in that era.

SETTING

Setting is the most important part of this novel. It’s 1930s Chicago and the Jim Crow Laws are in full force. Black people are corralled into the Black Belt, living in cramped, rat infested apartments that cost more to rent than the white people’s apartments across town; bread is more expensive but not as fresh as white people’s bread; It’s America at a time when black people are unknown and unwanted by the whites ruling class. It’s a country where black people feel completely alienated; a world where a murdered black woman’s body is considered with such disregard that it is used as evidence in the murder trial of a white woman.

It’s over 15 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and 17 years before Elizabeth Eckford and The Little Rock Nine met with such hate when they went to integrated high school for the first time.

An alternate-angle view of Elizabeth Eckford on her first day of school, taken by an Associated Press photographer. Hazel Bryan can be seen behind her in the crowd. (Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)

Bigger stays in a one room apartment with his mother, brother and sister. He and his brother share one bed while his mother and sister share another. They avert their eyes each morning to allow the others to get dressed without “feeling ashamed.”

Like his humanity, Bigger’s manhood is under constant attack, both at home and outside. To the white men in society he is a boy. To his mother he’s also boy, albeit in a different way:

‘sometimes I wonder why I birthed you.’

We wouldn’t have to live in this garbage dump if you had any manhood in you’

How is his manhood realised? In violence. When a helpless rat appears in the room, it’s Bigger who must kill it. He corners it and its fangs tear a three inch hole in his trousers. This happens in the first few pages and is a metaphor for the story to come, for Bigger is also helpless but cornered. He holds up the dead rat to his sister – his manhood and dominance made tangible, just as the state will hold him up to the white mob.

CHARACTERS

I will focus only on Bigger Thomas because to include the other characters: Mr. Dalton, Mary and Jan, Bessie, Max and Buckley, would be to turn this review into an essay.

Bigger Thomas

Bigger’s acts of bravado and violence hide his fear and make him feel, momentarily, as big as those he commits the acts upon. His ultimate act of violence though, that of taking a white life enables him to see clearly while those around him are blind. He sees the heavy burden his mother carries, his brothers naive innocence, his sister’s fear, her “shrinking from life.” However, in his clear sightedness he can only contrast his family against the white people he has met – His Mother/Mrs.Dalton, Buddy/Jan, Vera/Mary.

Committing murder and taking the subsequent actions is the first time in his life he’s acted fully on his own accord even though he feels forced into it to avoid being found in the girl’s room by her blind mother and being accused of the usual things that black men got accused of in those days.

He becomes obsessed with his ‘creation’ and constantly wants to read the newspaper to find out what’s being said about it and him, to read about his relevance in the world.

It’s not easy for me to separate Bigger from setting and plot. While I was reading, I highlighted a number of sentences that help characterise him:

“He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them.”

“he could take the job at Dalton’s and be miserable, or he could refuse it and starve. It maddened him to think that he did not have a wider choice of action.”

“Half the time I feel like I’m on the outside of the world peeping in through a knot-hole in the fence…”

“God, I’d love to fly up there in that sky.”

“His entire body hungered for keen sensation, something exciting and violent to relieve the taughtness.”

“In all his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him. He was living, truly and deeply, no matter what others might think, looking at him with their blind eyes. Never had he had the chance to live out the consequences of his actions; never had he been so free as in this night and day of fear and murder and flight.”

“It was when he read the newspapers or magazines, went to the movies, or walked along the streets with crowds, that he felt what he wanted: to merge himself with others and be part of this world, to lose himself in it so he could find himself, to be allowed a chance to live like others, even though he was black.”

PLOT

The novel is set in three parts.

Book 1 – Fear: Bigger Thomas is the man of the Thomas household: a one room apartment in the Black Belt of 1930’s Chicago which he shares with his mother, brother and sister. He’s chosen by the ‘Relief’ as empoverished enough to be given a job as a driver for Mr Dalton, owner of a real estate empire, who is particularly charitable towards the poor black people in town. Bigger accidentally kills Mr Dalton’s daughter, Mary, on his very first night on the job.

Book 2 – Flight: Bigger tries to evade capture by implicating Mary’s friend Jan in the murder, then opportunistically writes a ransom letter in an attempt to gain $10,000 for the safe return of the girl. He engages Bessie in this plan against her will, and in the process gets found out, goes on the run, kills Bessie to save himself, then get’s caught.

Book 3 – Fate: Bigger’s lawyer Mr Max explains to the court how Bigger, a product of his surroundings came to kill, and pleads leniency. However, the state and the mob it incited are out for blood and have already made their minds up.

CONCLUSION

I enjoyed reading Native Son and learning more about American history in the process. It shows how fear, hate, repression and alienation can force someone (or an idea of someone) into drastic action. Any animal or human forced into a corner by someone or something with harmful intentions will fight to free itself. It’s an important novel and despite or perhaps because of the criticism has introduced me to more works from that period in a way that To Kill a Mocking Bird didn’t. Thanks to the Ayana Mathis article linked in the introduction, I’ve added the following books to my reading list:

I give native Son 4 stars.

I finished this book in Bali. Check back soon for my Bali Analogue photo blog featuring Cinestill 800T. Or why not subscribe by email and receive an alert when it’s published.

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Portmanteau

Psst… I’m working on a new novel. It’s called Portmanteau.

Photo of a graveyard with the words 'Archibald 'Baldie' Summers is dead.' in the corner.

Baldie Summers, who obviously needs no introduction – Literature’s poster boy of the 1980s is found dead in a hotel room in Bangkok. Nobody even knew he was there.

Unexpected because he hadn’t been in the region for many years, but unsurprising because he was Archibald ‘Baldie’ Summers, he was working on new material in the region that made him.

Julian Rowntree, unknown writer living in Putney, West London, author of Terrarium, a novel that was well received by the very few who actually read it but has already run out of print, is asked by Baldie’s publisher to travel to Asia, follow in Baldie’s footsteps and finish what will be Baldie’s final novel.

Want to be one of the first to read Portmanteau? Add your email and I’ll let you know when it’s done.

Haven’t read my first novel yet? Check it out Here.

The Honourable Schoolboy by John Le Carré

The Honourable Schoolboy was my first John Le Carré book and second spy novel. I was not disappointed. It won both The James Tait Black Memorial Award and The C.W.A Golden Dagger Award.

Plot

The UK’s Secret Intelligence Service has been decimated by a Russian double agent. The meditative George Smiley sets out to rebuild the department and take down a Russian spy in Hong Kong which will take him closer to gaining his revenge over Karla, the Russian boss who drove the department’s downfall. Jerry Westerby, the Honourable Schoolboy, son of a Lord, writer and part-time SIS man heads east to ‘shake the tree’ and catch whatever falls out.

Characters

I loved the main characters and after a while didn’t want the Westerby scenes to end. He was an affable and intelligent James Bond character thrown into an Apocalypse Now(-ish) setting. I enjoyed learning more about him as the novel progressed and loved how his Sarratt training and own intuition guided him. Secondary characters were well placed and round enough to make them memorable and interesting.

I particularly liked Charlie Marshall, and the quite tender scene he and Westerby shared, Keller the American, who smokes with a welded claw and even Tiu who had just enough colour to make him seem real. The only character I didn’t take to was Fawn, Smiley’s plastic henchman who seemed a bit pointless. As this is the second book in the Karla series, I wonder if he played a bigger role in the first or was used to add some flavour to the Smiley scenes; towards the end I found Smiley’s quiet thoughtfulness and reticence a bit tiresome and wanted more life out of him.

Setting

The scenes along the Mekong, Bangkok and Phnom penh transported me straight back to that area and let me reminisce about the Sultry nights, rainy days and hazy sunsets. Different to mine however, Le Carré’s Mekong was gripped by the chaos of war with the Khmer Rouge. Hong Kong and its inhabitants were also well depicted. The author paid a lot of attention to detail.

Conclusion

Although I really enjoyed this book, the ending wasn’t all I had hoped for; what happened seemed out of character for one of the protagonists and I feel like the author rushed to get his theme out which was along the lines of exploring the battle between personal desire, loyalty and ambition with the bigger-picture sacrifice of your wants for the needs of your team and country and with politics linked throughout.

The Honourable Schoolboy is the middle novel in The Karla Trilogy, so the author will be setting up the third. Therefore, this may have detracted from the ending to make for a more thrilling third book.

I give this novel 4 stars.

Photo of paperback copy of The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carre surrounded by leaves collected during the reading.

I read this book in Tokyo, Thailand, Amsterdam, Scotland and Kazakhstan. The mementos around in the picture were collected from those locations – the leaves are from Shinjuku Gyoen, Yoyogi Park and Long Beach on Koh Lanta.

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Debut Author Interview

Sarah Lowe speaks to Steven-John Tait

First published in the Literary Lowedown Magazine. Reprinted with permission.

Sarah Lowe: Summarize your book for readers.

Steven-John Tait: Vagabundo is a bildungsroman with a difference. Rather than coming of age, it’s a coming of middle age story. It’s about a man who wanted more from life but was never able to put himself out there and go after it. Full of self-loathing, he leaves society and heads for the Amazon. But on his way there he finds an unexpected town, all his regrets come flooding back to him and he decides to give life in a community one last shot.

At its heart Vagabundo is a universal story. It goes under the superficial differences we have as people and explores the issues we share as humans. 


SL: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became a writer.

SJT: My two favourite things are reading and travelling. I love meeting new people and visiting different places. Some people I’ve met brought to my attention that I tell a lot of stories. So I thought to myself, why not try writing some? I enrolled in a creative writing course and began to write short stories. I was given encouragement by teachers and readers all the way. After writing a few short stories I set the goal of completing a full length novel. When the idea for Vagabundo came to me, I didn’t care how the book was going to turn out. I just wanted to stay true to the story and experience writing a novel.  I treated it as a gap year, but it took 6 years to get the job done. It was the most satisfying experience of my life.


SL: Tell us about your research and writing process for Vagabundo.

SJT: I turned my second bedroom into an office. On the walls were cork notice boards where I pinned anything remotely related to the story, locale and characters. In the mornings I would draft by hand, type up in the afternoon, then print out and redline at night. When I wasn’t writing I was researching. Vagabundo is set in Brazil, a place I’ve only spent 8 weeks in; I had to gain an understanding of the language, the flora and fauna, the religions and the people to make the story true.

It came together layer by layer. I knew the ending first and set a loose outline to get me there. I knew what themes I wanted to explore but many times I’d let the characters take the pen. There were both conscious and unconscious decisions, and the story seemed to evolve between the drafts until eventually I knew I’d written the story I set out to write.
In the thick of it I’d lose track of time, gluing myself to the chair from morning till night, I’d forget to eat and got no exercise other than the occasional walk to clear my head. My family got worried and told me that I should never write another one.

SL: What do you hope readers take away from reading your debut? 

SJT:
My first writing teacher gave me this advice: ‘Let people walk in someone else’s shoes for a while.’ It stuck. I want readers to be entertained and to experience a kind of escapism, but I also want them to feel like they’ve gained something from the reading, even if that’s just the opportunity to pause and think about their own actions and opinions, to consider those of others and to think about how we all fit together trying to get along while having different motivations and ideas of how life and society should be.


SL: What writers are you influenced by, and how are those influences reflected in your novel?

SJT: One of the biggest direct influences on was an image of a homeless man by Lee Jeffries. My main protagonist was inspired by a real person, but I got stuck on my idea of how this particular man would think, what he would do. The image by Jeffries is full of character. It forced me to forget the person I’d met and dive deep under the surface of my protagonist to discover his humanity, the who, why and when of him. It was a real moment of illumination.

I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and thought to myself, if I can take one year out of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and make it into something of my own, I might have something worthy of a novel. So I set the timeline of Vagabundo to be around one year. Of course, the story turned out completely different. I hoped for a work of magical realism but I’m more of a realist writer. 

I like the psychological style of the 19th and 20th century Russian writers and try to get deep into my characters. I’m not so interested in beautiful language, my aim is to make the words flow and for the the reading experience is very visual and visceral. I’m a fan of Hemingway and Bukowski and want to write solid stories about life. I also relate to the the politics of London and Orwell – the championing of the poor and oppressed, and this is reflected in my book.


SL: What are you currently reading, and what books are you recommending to your friends?

SJT: 90 percent of what I read is by dead authors. I just finished Moby Dick. Before that I was on Lord of the Flies, and before that Naked Lunch. Next up is The Honorable Schoolboy by John Le Carre as I move towards reading a list of books as research for my next novel.

The book I most often gift to people is The Meaning of Things by A.C. Grayling, and the novel I recommend to all who speak English as a second language is 1984.


SL: What’s next for you? Any preview you can give readers?

SJT: I’m working on a novel called Portmanteau. The idea came to me in Pilots Bar & Kitchen, Heathrow Terminal 5. I’m not sure if I actually saw or imagined him, but an old man sitting at a table finished his drink, gathered his papers into a leather shoulder bag then rushed off to catch his flight. A young man came in moments later and sat in his place. It got me thinking about how two people could be sharing the same space, but by a matter of only a few seconds, have no idea that the other exists; what event would bring them together? Portmanteau will be based mostly in South East Asia which is one of my favourite parts of the world.

SL: Where can our readers find you online?

SJT: You can find me on instagram @stevenjohn.tait but most of my posts are from my film photography instead of my writing. They can follow my writing on the Instagram pages for my books @vagabundobook and @portmanteau2022

Vagabundo is available across all Amazon sites for £ 6.99 paperback / £ 2.99 ebook or equivalent. Search Vagabundo by Steven-John Tait

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