Kids in America
The novelist A M Homes grew up in late-1960s Washington DC amid race riots and the sexual revolution. Here, she remembers a city like no other.
The writing of a novel is an act of the imagination predicated on the belief that it is possible to invent something out of nothing, and that by sheer will and careful selection of words, details and events, one can create lives out of whole cloth. It only works if one believes it can be done – it requires a leap of faith akin to Philippe Petit walking the high wire; there is no room for self doubt. That said, a novelist develops over time, many years spent absorbing, observing, processing. And so when one is asked where a novel comes from, one is faced with a curious process of unpacking the social, cultural and personal seeds that were the fodder for the book.
I think of myself as someone who is truly a fiction writer. My stories are not thinly veiled versions of real life, they are not based on friends and family. But the books do come out of my own experience, my efforts to make sense of the world around me, both on an intimate and much larger social scale.
A novel bridges the gap between the known and the unknown – it is in that space between things that it accrues its power. The novel is not a record of what literally happened but a sketch of what may have happened, what still might happen; it is an illustration of the gap between our public and private selves. At its best, it is an illumination of who we are.
I consider my work to be deeply American – I think of it along the lines of the work of artists such as Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman, or film-makers such as Alexander Payne and the Coen brothers – simultaneously serious and satirical.
I was born in Washington DC during a snowstorm in December 1961. My birth was illegitimate: my biological father was married with children, my biological mother much younger and unmarried. Their affair was long and tumultuous. I imagine it against the backdrop of the Kennedy era, the “Great Society” and the postwar expansion of the American Dream. I imagine their affair dipping into a fantasy world where all things are possible. I imagine my biological father with a swaggering sense of machismo, bravura about what it means to be a man, and possessed by the notion that he can have it all – “all” in this instance being a life, a wife and a mistress. My mother was a young woman trying to find herself as women’s roles were beginning to change. I imagine bouffant hairdos, cocktail parties, the loosening of the social formality of the 1950s, a feeling of prosperity and, with the advent of the birth-control pill, the dawn of the sexual revolution. For context, consider that 1961 sees the publication of Joseph Heller’s darkly comic novel Catch-22 and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, the great novel of suburban aspiration and alienation. The Cuban missile crisis would take place the following year. These are the literary and cultural seeds that birthed me.
I grew up on the edge of Washington DC, a city unlike any other place in America: the nation’s capital, yet it had no power to govern, no vote, no senators and no voice. It was a divided city, too – by day filled with white bureaucrats who worked for the government and who left at dusk. In the 1960s, the residents of Washington were mostly black. It exploded into riots after the assassination in 1968 of Martin Luther King. In response, President Lyndon Johnson ordered thousands of federal troops to bring order. Marines with machine guns stood on the steps of the capitol; soldiers guarded the White House. The FBI director, J Edgar Hoover, suggested that the rioters should be shot. It was the largest occupation of Washington since the civil war. By the time it ended four days later there had been more than 6,000 arrests and more than 1,200 buildings had been burned. It took decades for the city to recover, economically and perhaps more importantly spiritually.
At the age of seven I was aware of a great sense of sadness, of a dream dashed, the implosion of hope and a wave of overwhelming failure. My mother was a volunteer in the DC public- school system. The children would pat her hair – so different from their own – and say, “Mrs Homes, you got good hair.” Politically active liberals, we were a family who marched on Washington and didn’t eat iceberg lettuce or green grapes because they weren’t picked by union workers. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realised that the union leader and civil rights activist César Chávez had nothing to do with caesar salad.
I got my political feet wet in 1968 working for Hubert H Humphrey’s presidential campaign. With a friend whose father was well-placed in the political landscape, I’d hunker down after school in a basement and make “HHH” memorabilia – key chains, glass ashtrays, all painted with a red, white and blue “HHH”, which we then sold door to door. We believed we could make a difference.
Our neighbours were diplomats with immunity. They parked their cars wherever they wanted – they didn’t have to pay parking tickets – their children behaved badly at school and occasionally, in a bid for attention, they stole things, like our bicycles. We could see our bikes at the top of a nearby driveway, but no one could do anything. The local police couldn’t even knock on the door and ask for their return.
Nixon was the first president of my conscious life –he loomed large in the period 1969- 74, my most formative years. We often encountered his two teenage daughters and their secret service agents as they shopped for shoes in the local department stores, and the President himself on class trips to the White House, where we played on the enormous green lawn while Nixon welcomed various heads of state.
In our neighbourhood, almost everyone’s parents except mine worked for the government. The CIA and FBI went door to door gathering information, like little old ladies collecting for charity. They wanted to know if we’d noticed anything strange at the neighbours’ houses, people coming and going at odd hours, people from other places (or did they say “races”?). There were oddities – war planes parked beneath trees in Rock Creek Park, which was just behind our house, or hippies camping out in our basement as they came to town to protest.
In 1972, Nixon made his celebrated trip to China –he described it as the week that changed the world – and when he returned a friend and I were taken out of school and to the national zoo to see First Lady Pat Nixon welcome the gift of two giant pandas. I remember a news camera being aimed in my direction and a nice news lady asking, “What do you think of the new giant pandas? Already disillusioned, I said, “Well, they’re not really very big, are they?”
My parents took me on marches against the war and to Leonard Bernstein’s anti-inaugural “concert for peace” in 1972 at the National Cathedral. It was a cold January night and we stood outside the packed cathedral on the street with thousands of others listening to Haydn’s Mass in the Time of War and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture – all of it very dramatic, and a powerful signal that something had to change.
My own social and moral development evolved alongside the American people’s growing awareness that our government wasn’t really “by the people for the people” but a series of off-the-record relationships and deals made in back rooms. The older brothers of my classmates had to register for the military draft as they graduated from high school and be prepared to fight in a war that they were opposed to. Others conscientiously objected and some left the country for a safe haven in Canada. It was a complex personal coming of age that ran parallel to a large-scale redefinition of American political culture. I was torn by the simultaneous and contradictory desire to conform, to be good, and also to claim my autonomy as an anti-authoritarian and rebel.
In our family there was a similarly complicated unfurling of history, secrets, decision making and grief – combined with flashes of hope, a fine moment of promise and a belief in a better future. It was strange time and place to be a child: a multi-layered existence with shifting standards, exceptions, and different rules for different people.
The 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters ordered by President Nixon and the subsequent Watergate scandal had a big impact in confirming my sense of what was right and wrong. I was at summer camp deep in North Carolina, amid tobacco fields and a surprisingly deep racial divide, when Nixon resigned. The camp counsellors were crying, saying things like, “I bet my mama’s having a heart attack.” I knew that at the same time there would be a sense of celebration at home. It was at that moment I realised that Washington was not just an oddly old fashioned swampy southern town but that the decisions made there, the reverberations of one man’s behaviour, were not just local, but national and even global.
The idea that a government could repeatedly and knowingly betray the trust of the people, that a president could so misuse his power – claiming that if the president does it, it’s not illegal – unfolded alongside my own family dramas, the unveiling of secrets, deeper histories and a sense that nothing was ever quite what it seemed. The result was a sharpening of my eye and an obsession with locating the truth and finding an articulation for that space between things that defines who we are. My need to parse fact from fiction in my own family led me to be more suspicious, to want to illuminate the space between public and private, to give language to that chasm.
The actions taken by a president or fictional character resonate and carry forward through history – and remind us of the depths of our responsibility to and for one another. I constantly think about why people behave as they do and what their behaviour means to them; how beliefs are formed and what they are used to defend or explain. I remain fascinated by Nixon’s struggle; with the way, even as president, he was so isolated. By how he would stay up late into the night writing for hours on long legal pads, scratching out a logic for himself.
I am perpetually reading the culture – the social, political and economic worlds as well as those of visual art, music and literature. All of it conspires to become the stuff of fiction. Everything I write about is a hope, a dream of who were are and what we one day might be; a dream that is born from all that has come before.
A M Homes’s novel “May We Be Forgiven” is published by Granta Books (£16.99).