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Writing Wrongs: The Color of My Low-Down Dirty Vote


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David Corbett for Writer Unboxed

At some point in your career you may get asked to participate in a story anthology with other authors. If the collection is clearly linked to the themes, style, and subject matter of your own work, a “yes” response is often simple. But on other occasions the premise of the anthology may seem so far removed to your customary niche, and you may wonder if you can contribute meaningfully, or it’s worth your while to try.

I was recently asked to participate in a nonfiction anthology about voter suppression and intimidation. (It’s the third in a series titled Low Down Dirty Vote; the specific focus of this collection, which come out this Sunday, is The Color of My Vote.) All of the solicited contributors were from the crime-mystery genre, for reasons the anthology’s editor, Mysti Berry, explains below. But the issue for the sake of this post concerns how each of the contributors adapted the themes and techniques of that chosen genre to something seemingly far removed from the world of murder, banks heists, and kidnappings.

Mysti Berry, the editor of all three volumes of Low Down Dirty Vote, explained her reasoning this way:

“Raising money for a good cause is a time-honored tradition, from bake sales for schools to begging text messages from our elected representatives. But I’ll admit, donating to the cause of fighting voter suppression via crime stories is not the most obvious of choices.

Indeed, when I approached the writers I knew best to ask for a story for Volume I of Low Down Dirty Vote, a common response was, “Oh, I love that cause—but I’ve got nothing. It’s kind of weird, you know?”

Indeed, in the early days of the 21st century crime writers were strongly encouraged to leave politics in the subtext. That changed dramatically, however, in the past few years.

Crime writers spend their working lives studying the difference between who we say (and believe) we are, and who we really are; what we really do when we think no one is looking. Crime writers know a con when we see one. And we know what happens when you let corruption fester.

But how can we talk about this when we’re supposed to “keep politics out of it?” I came to believe that there is a profound difference between policy disputes (what we used to call politics) and basic civil rights and human rights. Policy disputes are best left for a time and place when all parties agree that they want to “talk politics.” But defense of every citizen’s basic civil rights and human rights for everyone is a task we should embrace and insist upon—loudly.

Luckily for the anthologies, quite a few crime writers agree.

When I asked certain writers for a story for Volume I, it was because I knew them as good and decent human beings, and I assumed that they either already knew more than me about voter suppression or, like me, events of the day were catching them up fast.

I’m very shy and especially phobic about asking people for favors, so I asked people who would either say yes or be very nice about saying no. I shouldn’t have been worried, though—crime writers are some of the kindest people you’ll ever meet, generous and always ready to help if they can.

Each writer who was able to say yes for that first volume came up with a unique take on the theme of fighting voter suppression. From stories as gentle as a middle-school election to the terrifying story of a young poll worker’s last day, authors stepped outside their comfort zone. And it was important to me to assure each contributor that they had free rein to interpret the anthology’s theme as broadly as they wish.

I remember the conversations with each writer who said yes. Many had a sort of “Oh!” moment when a strong idea came to them. A few had a concept already but no home for the story (see: avoiding “politics”). A few puzzled over it until something strong came to them. One writer told a #MeToo story she was a little afraid to share. Other writers also took this more metaphorical approach, making the anthology great fun to read.

We crime writers are used to staring closely and for long periods of time at very ugly things, and stealing another person’s vote is about the ugliest thing you can do to a person and a democracy. Asking us to write about one of the literal crimes of the century, voter suppression, feels quite natural now. I hope that before another decade passes, it becomes a reprehensible idea once again.”

Several of the contributors of Volume III—aka LDDV3—added their own thoughts as to why they agreed to contribute a story. (Note: rather than bios, I’ve provided links to the authors’ web pages, and I encourage you to visit those pages to learn more about these incredibly talented writers.)

  • For my own part (David Corbett), before my recent move from California to New York, I lived in a very ethnically and culturally diverse city at the southern tip of a county otherwise overwhelmingly conservative and white. Tensions between “up-county” and “down-county” have long influenced local politics. In my fiction, I have often been drawn to stories that expose the wider implications of violence, effects that move beyond perpetrator and victim and impact the larger community. Given the ever-metastasizing number of guns in this country; the increasingly generous laws concerning their sale and use; the seemingly intractable political polarization dividing us; and the mounting, irrational hostility against election supervisors and poll workers; it seemed to me likely that election-day violence is virtually inevitable. That’s personal for me, for I’ve served as a poll worker the past two elections and hope to do so again in my new locale. What would happen if, in the name of “election security,” armed men from “up-county” appeared at my “down-county” polling place? How would the volunteers, mostly women of color, have handled it? How would the mostly minority voters in my precinct, as well as the larger community, county authorities, law enforcement, have responded?
  • Patricia Canterbury’s genre inclinations go far beyond traditional mystery, but those inclinations have always been in service of a larger narrative, speaking to current issues “without hitting the reader of over the head with my ideas.” Her short stories and novels are either historical (1930s Northern California) or Afro-Futuristic alternative-universe murder mysteries. Her protagonists are twelve-year-old black girls in a small colored northern California town; a bi-racial male private investigator searching for his lost niece in San Francisco’s Chinatown; and a twenty-third century bi-racial female police officer tracking deaths between planet earth and manned satellites. In all her stories, women and people of color have to overcome the typical limitations of being political outsiders, trying to claim power when it’s deliberately denied them—a theme which translated naturally to a story about being denied the right to vote.
  • Eric Beetner is drawn to crime fiction because he enjoys stories where things go terribly wrong. “In my novels and stories I tend to go small stakes. A heist on Fort Knox isn’t as interesting to me as the guy who thinks he can knock off the corner grocery. I like the small timers, ordinary saps, average Janes and Joes who rub up against criminality in a way that the reader can see isn’t far removed from their own world. So the idea of color and voting brought me to a petty squabble in a condo board meeting about what color to repaint a part of the condo complex. Not very exciting to the rest of us, but if you’ve ever been a part of a small-time bureaucracy then you know how some people treat even the most seemingly minor issue like a matter of life and death. I hope readers will see a vision of how our political discourse has gotten so hyperbolic and divisive to the point that even the piddliest differences can create battle lines worthy of civil war.”
  • Jackie Ross Flaum is drawn to the crime genre because of its emphasis on fear and illusion—the need to find the difficult truth buried beneath the convenient lie, and the terror many might feel at the unearthing of that truth. These themes helped her see the act of voter suppression first as thievery, “thievery against the American promise of fair elections where every vote counts.” But she also saw that crime as driven by fear—fear of a certain person or group—and the need to sell the illusion that that group should not have access to the ballot box. As for the turn from genre to politically-theme fiction, that was no real problem for a former journalist and speechwriter. Quoting William Landay, author of Defending Jacob, she said, “I wouldn’t want readers to think I’m just a storyteller.”
  • Gabriel Valjan writes mysteries because they force him to think. He based his contribution to LLDV3 on an apocryphal story about one of his idols, the late great Dashiell Hammett. Legend has it that a mining company offered Hammett, a Pinkerton agent at the time, $5,000 (about $110K in today’s money) to kill labor leader Frank Little. Hammett didn’t  take the offer, but someone did.

“Like most writers of historical fiction,” he says, “I do a lot of research so I can mix fact with speculation credibly, but I also view events through the dark lens that some call noir. In the case of my story, ‘C.O.D.,’ the reader walks into a world not all that different from our own, but the union agitator has upset the karmic balance between those who profit from labor and those who work to survive. The stranger who comes to town to right a wrong speaks almost entirely in Biblical quotes, which I think says something about society and our legal system. As for justice, I leave that for the reader to decide.”

  • Bev Vincent uses the trope of the private detective to tackle issues that are not necessarily criminal or don’t rise to the level of criminality that would involve the police. In her story, private investigator Benjamin Kane is tasked with investigating something that is definitely not a crime. He is hired to determine whether a Black high school teacher is “guilty” of including Critical Race Theory in his class. The client is gathering evidence in an attempt to get the teacher fired. Under ordinary circumstances, Kane would have refused such a client but, in the coronavirus era, business is slow, so he takes the case despite his misgivings. Kane plays the role of the uninformed person so the teacher can lay it all out—his conviction that CRT has a legitimate place in high school education. “However,” Bev adds, “for me, the coup de grâce in the story was a twist ending that occurred to me when I was halfway through the first draft. It provided a concrete and (to me, at least) satisfying resolution to the case.” At the risk of giving away that ending, let’s just say detectives are quite good at digging up information people would prefer to leave buried.
  • Growing up in Chicago, David Hagerty was always intrigued by the connection between crime and politics. In particular, the 1963 assassination of alderman Ben Lewis became a long-standing source of fascination. It had been decades since the time of Al Capone and Prohibition, when local politicians who failed to appease the mob routinely met an untimely end. Then, in 1963, Lewis was executed with three bullets to the back of the head. One local paper termed it “The Return of the Rubout.”

“I’ve wanted to write about his killing for some time,” David says, and “the theme of the LDDV3 anthology (The Color of Your Vote) spurred me on.” Lewis was an up-and-coming African-American politician who operated both inside and outside the Democratic machine, which irritated a lot of the wrong people. For over 60 years, people have speculated about the motive for the murder: one of Lewis’s many political enemies? A jealous ex-husband he’d cuckolded? An angry mobster he’d failed to pay off? A bitter business partner he’d cheated? “The ambiguity appealed to me because it reflected the city’s history of corruption, where the truth is always shaded, denied, hidden—or eliminated altogether.”

  • When people ask Faye Snowden why use crime fiction to illustrate the dangers of voter suppression, she can’t help but think about Eliza on the ice. “It’s one of the most powerful scenes in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin(1863). With her child in her arms, Eliza stands on the bank of a half-frozen Ohio river. There is only a moment of hesitation before she plunges into the freezing water to escape her pursuers. Eventually she drags herself and her child on a floating patch of ice. And with bare and bloodied feet she leaps from one patch of ice to another until she reaches the other side to freedom.”

For all the problematic and racist themes of the novel—which writers from Richard Wright to Toni Morrison have addressed in one form or another—that scene captured imaginations. It inspired drawings, paintings, essays; actors reenacted the scene to packed houses in theaters across the country.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, despite its many faults, drew on facts that were coming to light through slave narratives, which allowed readers to both see and smell the stench of the packed cargo holds of slave ships, the horrors of multi-generational enslavement, the terrors encountered by runaways. By using the conventions of melodrama, the novel had a profound effect on the American psyche, calling many to action to join the abolitionist movement and change society.

“There are some who consider crime fiction, like melodrama, a throwaway, escapist genre,” Faye says, “but in skilled hands, crime fiction can address the most serious issues of our time while entertaining us. In particular, it can address the pernicious effects of voter suppression. Done well, it can get people talking, and maybe like the image of Eliza on the ice, get them moving.”

What questions do you have for any of these contributors concerning how they employed the specific techniques common to crime fiction—building suspense, delaying crucial reveals, sifting through historical research for just the right details, planting false clues, creating a morally compromised protagonist—in their stories for this anthology?

What other genres—romance, sci-fi, fantasy, speculative, historical, YA—might also be amenable to a similarly-themed anthology? Why or why not? Have you been asked to contribute to such an anthology? How did it go?

 

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About David Corbett

David Corbett (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character, and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.

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