The Books Interview: Attica Locke

Jay, the protagonist in your novel Black Water Rising, is a veteran of the American civil rights movement. Is he mourning the movement, or trying to forget it?
I don't think Jay has slowed down enough, emotionally, to allow himself to mourn the movement. I think he is trying to put it behind him, in the way that the country in 1981 had put it behind. So much in America during the Reagan era had changed, compared to the 1960s and 1970s. Jay believes that he needs to put his political past behind him in order to find economic and personal success in the cultural climate in which he finds himself - Texas, 1981.

Why did you decide to set the novel in that year?
I picked 1981 because it was a time of transition in America. Yes, the civil rights movement was fresh in the minds of African Americans, but a lot of black people at that time also laid down their political activism to focus on economic prosperity instead. There was a feeling that money could be a way to level the playing field, a way that people of colour might find equality.

And your parents were involved in the civil rights movement?
My father and mother didn't go to college until 1965 and 1967, respectively, so they kind of missed the part of the movement that was about sit-ins and non-violence. When my parents went to school, Black Power was all the rage and was capturing the hearts and imaginations of a lot of young African Americans who felt that Martin Luther King's philosophy of non-violence had its limits. That said, my parents - and my father in particular - are like Jay, in that they always saw the limits of black nationalism.

Your parents named you after the uprising at the Attica state prison in 1971. Why was that event so significant?
What happened at Attica was a sign of the influence of the culture of activism, that it had reached all the way behind prison walls. Likewise, New York State's violent response to the uprising was a sign of how much the government and law enforcement agencies had come to disdain this kind of political engagement.

The Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael appears in the novel. Were the Panthers a wrong turn for the movement?
I understand where the Panthers were coming from. You can only see your people beaten up, cheated and murdered so many times before you want to pick up a gun. But the older I get, the more I believe that Dr King's philosophy of non-violence is the only sustaining principle. Violence is always a dead end - a spiritual dead end. Holding a gun only proves how scared you are.

What about Barack Obama? Was his success in 2008 the beginning of a change, or have the hopes that his election stoked already been dashed?
There is absolutely nothing that could happen politically that would take away the meaning of his election. It matters, plain and simple. It does not mean that racism has been erased, or that we are in a post-racial society. It means that there is a large section of the population that wants to heal some of the past. What's more, I would argue that it also means there's a large section of the population (young voters under, say, 30) for whom America's racial past is irrelevant. America has a great capacity for self-correction. It can be an expansive place. The challenge lies in the fact that change, when it comes fast and furious, can do a number on our psyches. This is the tension that Jay is living in the novel. It can be hard to know one's place in the world when the rules have suddenly changed.

But some people in America haven't reconciled themselves to change - the Tea Party movement, for example.
Before they started arming themselves, I actually felt tremendous compassion for all these people who were saying, "I want my country back." It's true that, for a certain group of white people, the country they once knew is gone. It's possible that some people need time to mourn that. My hope is that the racial anxiety we're seeing - the Tea Partiers and "Birthers" who don't believe Obama was born in America - is just growing pains.

“Black Water Rising" is published by Serpent's Tail (£7.99). The novel has been shortlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction, the winner of which will be announced on 9 June

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 31 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war on the veil