Hardcover, 336 pagesPublished May 29th 2018 by Atria Books
It’s 1968 when fourteen-year-old Huey Fairchild begins high school at Claremont Prep, one of New York City’s most prestigious boys’ schools. His mother had uprooted her family from their small hometown of Akersburg, Georgia, a few years earlier, leaving behind Huey’s white father and the racial unrest that ran deeper than the Chattahoochee River.
But for our sharp-tongued protagonist, forgetting the past is easier said than done. At Claremont, where the only other nonwhite person is the janitor, Huey quickly realizes that racism can lurk beneath even the nicest school uniform. After a momentary slip of his temper, Huey finds himself on academic probation and facing legal charges. With his promising school career in limbo, he begins examining his current predicament at Claremont through the lens of his childhood memories of growing up in Akersburg during the Civil Rights Movement—and the chilling moments leading up to his and his mother’s flight north.
With Huey’s head-shaking antics fueling this coming-of-age narrative, the story triumphs as a tender and honest exploration of race, identity, family, and homeland.
Question # 1
Being born in a “home for unwed mothers” and adopted by Civil Rights activists, you had a very unique childhood and upbringing! How did that affect your outlook on the world as an adult, and how did it affect the conception of your debut novel, They Come in All Colors? *Brilliant title, by the way*
I don’t remember the Civil Rights Movement ever having been taught when I was in elementary or middle school. If it was discussed, it was only ever mentioned in a cursory way, as if to highlight the political bravery of a Kennedy or LBJ. As a consequence, I never gave it much importance, even where it concerned my father’s involvement. Like most kids, I just wanted to blend in as much as possible and be like everyone else. So I downplayed the significance of my dad’s role in SNCC in favor of the conventional wartime heroes that my classmates celebrated. It wasn’t until late adolescence that I began to see the stories that my father had told me about his experience in the Albany Movement and the bravery of people like James Foreman and Charles Sherrod for the heroism that it was. After I started writing fiction, it dawned on me that the setting and characters he’d described to me during countless late night conversations over the kitchen table were also a creative asset—they were all right there for me, begging to be brought to life on the page.
I noticed while reading—and noted in my review of your novel—that Man Booker Prize winner Paul Beatty’s influence on your writing seems evident in the text. What is your relationship to him, and how did he influence the way you approached They Come in All Colors?
Paul Beatty was a workshop instructor of mine while I was studying at Columbia University. Paul and I later became friends and occasionally hang out over a beer. Paul has excellent taste in beer. Paul’s primary influence on me as a writer was to convince me of the need to one day actually finish my book. He worried that I might suffer from an excess of perfectionism, and for which reason, if I wasn’t careful, I might find myself writing and re-writing entire sections endlessly to get them “just right.” So Paul was the one who convinced me of the need to eventually hang up my hat and call it a day; to be satisfied with, and confident in, my best effort. I am very grateful to Paul for that bit of wisdom.
Toward the end of the novel, after Peola and Huey have left the South, Huey starts to find his way into adulthood. He gets into a few scrapes with the law and examines his relationship with his father and with race relations around him. Yet, the narrative seemed to come to an end before either he or Peola had really made it to any particular destination in their lives. Did you have a specific intent with the way you wanted the book to end, and what do you hope your readers took away from this read once they read the final page and closed the book?
Peola has struck a kind of Faustian bargain with a man for reasons she believes to be in the best interest of her son, Huey. In time, Peola and her son appear to be increasingly trapped in the resulting domestic arrangement; one that over the course of the novel, becomes increasingly untenable. Thus, the novel’s premise: a mother’s Faustian compromise that results in a domestic arrangement that she eventually realizes she has no choice but to extract herself and her son from. By all appearances, Peola and Huey have achieved this by means of a move northward, to New York. Yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Thus the novel allows for the possibility that instead of having traded up, Peola has merely managed an even swap; that at best she’s only exchanged one oppressive reality for another. I felt this to be not only the most honest representation of life as I know it, but one that corresponds best with the nature of the Faustian bargain found at the heart of the novel. To have resolved this story in any other way would have been to sell myself, life, and the reader short.
I loved your skillful use of satire in this novel, because it really set it apart from others on the shelf in its approach to the topic of race in America. Why did you decide to go the satirical route for this narrative?
I think what you’re referring here is the fact that as a boy growing up in Akersburg, Georgia, Huey has internalized the received wisdom of the white community to which he is partially heir. This received wisdom hangs over Huey over the course of the entire novel, and is his to deal with. This is what makes the novel real, complicated, and interesting. I suppose I think that the depiction of a light-skinned biracial child who has fully bought into the racist ideology that he finds himself surrounded by is not satire, but tragedy. I went all the way with it because that’s the only way to go.
In writing They Come in All Colors, what were some of the sections, passages or themes that you or your editors opted to remove from the final drafts of the manuscripts, and why? How does this part of the editorial process shape your writing as a whole?
I wasn’t asked to cut anything, however, I was encouraged to develop several sections further. The New York sections are a good example of that. I’m not sure what was up with me at the time. Maybe I was just exhausted with all the time I’d spent developing the Akersburg sections by that point, but I initially underestimated the importance of the New York sections. I’d conceived of the story being book ended with New York. I don’t know. I think I just wanted to be done with it already and writing New York in a way that felt on par with the work I’d done on the Akersburg sections felt like writing an entirely new book, what with giving it a fully fleshed out arc in its own right. Thankfully, my agent and editor gave me a few words of encouragement and nudged me in the right direction.
In my review of They Come in All Colors on Goodreads, a discussion ensued sparked by your novel’s themes. There, we debated the detriments to vs. intrinsic worth of “lying to children to maintain their innocence,” a staple of Western childrearing, which was a major theme of your novel. What are your thoughts on the subject, and how were those sentiments reflected (or not reflected in TCIAC)?
We are increasingly living in a world of our own constructed reality, which is to say that it seems to me that, more than ever before, we get to pick our own truth. Maybe this is the way that it’s always been but that because of the internet we notice it more. Be that as it may, instead of judging the merit of one person’s truth relative to that of another, I prefer to consider their motives. By and large, I think people have good motives, and if they are not good, they’re usually understandable. In Peola’s case, she’s simply trying to do what she feels is best for her son given her circumstance, and what she knows at the time. It is to her credit that she changes as circumstances and her knowledge changes. This, I think, is all that we can ask of anyone.
What is your reaction to how your novel has been received, both on the shelves and as a concept, by your readers thus far?
I wanted to write the kind of book that I’d wished I’d had as a young person; that is, something that spoke to me not just on a human level, but on a deeply personal level, and on a subject that oftentimes feels so muddled and confusing. If one person connects with this book in that way, then I’m happy.
What is the strangest experience you ever encountered either on your extensive travels abroad or while in the South? Did life in the South prepare you for experiences abroad (or the other way around)?
The more I travel the more I’m convinced how fundamentally the same people are. Our hopes and fears, although differing in the particulars, are more often than not reactions to the same sorts of things. As a writer, it’s important to see the humanity in people—in all people, not just the ones you like—and that helped me to write this book.
Tell us one awkward/embarrassing/unique fact about yourself.
I was an intense bed wetter as a kid. Camping trips, sleep overs—you name it—I’d scar the occasion by leaving everything under me soaked come morning. Did it until I was twelve. It was the source of intense embarrassment and shame. But the more I worried about it the worse it got. Which is why I thought it only right that Huey should be a bed wetter, too. What better manifestation of anxiety for all that an eight-year-old lacks words for?
Tell us one thing you wish you could change permanently about the American way or our society.
I look forward to the day when human existence becomes fundamentally collaborative. We have so much to learn from each other. Who the hell’s benefiting from all of this animus, anyway?
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Malcolm Hansen was born at the Florence Crittenton Home for Unwed Mothers in Chattanooga, TN. Adopted by two Civil Rights activists, his family lived in Morocco, Spain, Germany, and various parts of the United States. Malcolm left home as a teenager and after two years of high school education, went to Stanford, earning a BA in philosophy. He worked for a few years in the software industry in California before setting off for what turned out to be a decade of living, working, and traveling throughout Central America, South America, and Europe. Malcolm returned to the US to complete an MFA in Fiction from Columbia. He currently lives in New York City with his wife and two sons.