David Lida’s ONE LIFE is the Injection of Humanity for Your Post-Election Blues

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Post-election, I find myself struggling with the same question that’s been plaguing me all year: how should a writer of color engage with hate? Is that even our job at this point? Of course hate is what it is. This is not hyperbole. This is not spin. It is a fact that unbridled, unabashed, unhinged white supremacy propelled the Republican ticket to the presidency and also served as a tool to corral the white voter bloc to take control of both the House and Senate. It’s a fact, too, that Trump’s campaign has pledged to make good on their campaign promises: to put a ban on Muslims, punish women for abortions, and deport millions of undocumented people.

Make no mistake: these are direct pledges to strip women and people of color of their dignity, to punish them for who they are. And what is a writer of color to do in the face of that? What is a writer of color to do in a social fabric where it’s not only a well known (and well documented) fight against the publishing industry to have our voices heard and acknowledged, but now an even larger and more direct fight to maintain the very dignity that inspires and informs our work? I wonder too if these two fronts aren’t two facets of the same fight against white supremacy, though that’s an essay for another time. The immediate question is what do we do now? For me, the answer is simple if selfish—we read.

Escapism, on this day where no one can seem to look each other in the eye, is the only salve. David Lida’s newest novel, One Life (Unnamed Press), is exactly the dark-humored piece of literature everyone should be indulging in right now. Not that One Life is particularly uplifting, though the novel’s protagonist, Richard, comes as some affirmation (and a reminder) that somewhere out there in the world, earnest, self-deprecating, purposeful humanity exists. And Richard, for all his jadedness, for all his anxieties internal and external, is still driven by a sense of empathy for the undocumented people he’s been given the task of saving from death row.

One Life opens with Richard’s meditation on his own death, revealed in the opening pages of the novel:

I thought of death constantly, but rarely imagined how I would die.  Pressured to conjure a vision, an optimistic picture emerged: I’d be one of those lucky slender guys who quietly sneak into old age in a T-shirt, with thinning silver hair and respectable muscle tone.  Not as vigorous as in youth, but without any serious debilitating condition.  You know the type.  The guy you see in Starbucks wearing half-frame glasses, doing the crosspuzzle. . . .

In Part I of the novel (there are three parts), we go into the weeds of Richard’s work as we meet the subject he’ll be trying to save from death row, Esperanza, who has been convicted of killing her eleven month old baby. As a mitigation specialist, Richard’s job is to humanize Esperanza in an American social fabric and criminal justice system that has flattened the characters of undocumented people into a single archetype, a single story of violence.

To sentence a flattened character to death in America—as we so often do with people of color—is easier than looking their story in the eye.  And that’s how Richard finds himself desperately searching for the threads to Esperanza’s past in her native Puroaire, Mexico, searching for anything that might explain (or exculpate her) from the crimes she may have done: good character references, a hard upbringing, tainted well water, evidence of mental handicaps of any kind (which would be the silver bullet). Richard meticulously pieces together the story of how she came to the United States to find work as part of a cleanup crew in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and how she found herself in a jail cell in rural Louisiana.

Richard, a failed novelist, a divorced man unattached emotionally to any meaningful relationship, is a different kind of burnout than Esperanza, though undoubtedly they’re two sides of the same coin. Richard lives in Esperanza’s native Mexico; Esperanza in Richard’s native US. Richard finds himself examining the parameters of his own death from the beginning of the novel; Esperanza’s death sentence is always in the backs of our minds, even as the story unfolds. At the core of One Life is the truth that there is such thing as a shared humanity. And this is what makes the concept of death row seem all the more barbaric, all the more backward.

This morning, I’m reading the news—as I do every morning—and I can’t help but notice that private prison stocks are up in the wake of Trump’s victory.  I think of people that look like Esperanza, people that look like me.  Even in my escapism, Lida’s characters—that story—are with me as I’m processing the hate that people of color everywhere are about to confront as a fully fleshed out, fully legitimized counter position to our progress.  For those of us living in the American South where capital punishment is still a thing, one can’t help but wonder what the surge in these stock prices foretell.

One Life explores a hard truth: this country wasn’t built for people of color, but we’ve survived and thrived in spite of it. Even if they try to destroy us, deport us, lock us away, we all know the score. That hate, that fragility, is based on a faulty calculus—we gain, they lose; they get behind, we get ahead.

People of color know that in a rigged game we are not in a race. We are not keeping score. We are simply taking the next step forward, that next step in loving what’s already good in our lives. White fragility is in direct opposition to brown/black/LGBTQ/feminist progress. Love yourself, do good work, and that will always be enough to dismantle that fragile hate.