Books

Why Alexi Zentner wrote a novel about a teenager trying to escape his white supremacist roots

Copperhead was influenced by an incident from Zentner's adolescence, when his mom's office in Kitchener-Waterloo was allegedly firebombed by a neo-Nazi group. 
Copperhead is a novel by Alexi Zentner. (Laurie Willick, Viking)

In Copperhead, a 17-year-old born into a family of white supremacists grapples with the question of what it means to stand by loved ones who preach hate — and whether or not he's destined to follow in their footsteps. 

Alexi Zentner says he's been wanting to tell this story since his own adolescence, when his mom's office in Kitchener-Waterloo was allegedly firebombed by a neo-Nazi group. 

Zentner, whose past books include The Lobster Kings and Touch, discusses how he wrote Copperhead.

An unusual book

"It's a comprehensive story of a high school football star whose family goes to the Blessed Church of the White America and he's really struggling with how he can deal with the question of what it means to love people who hate. It comes to a head over one long weekend where his family history collides with some bad decisions and some accidents.

"I think the book itself is unusual. To write a book where the protagonist comes from a family like this and where I'm presenting characters who hold beliefs that I find abhorrent. One of the main characters has tattoos over his body that are white supremacist tattoos and yet ... he's not a wholly terrible person."

Rooted in personal history

"For me, the genesis of this novel actually goes back to when I was a kid. My mom was a local activist and she did a lot of fighting against racism and against anti-Semitism. When I was in high school, after years of threats, my parents' office was firebombed by white supremacists. A former member of the Heritage Front testified that it was members of the Heritage Front who did it, but nobody was ever arrested for it.

How is it that you can hate somebody like that...  for no reason other than the colour of their skin or their religion?

"That's one of these questions that has haunted me my whole life. How is it that you can hate somebody like that, that you can feel that kind of violence and anger toward somebody, for no reason other than the colour of their skin or their religion? I wanted to write a book that explored that."

Starting a conversation

"The point of Copperhead was not to have this socially conscious novel with a message, but rather to start a conversation. I wanted to write a book where people could talk about the ways in which family is complicated, in which who we love is complicated, and in which you are stuck with what you're born into. 

"My children have been born into a family where they've been taught their entire life that tolerance is important and that people who don't look like them are not the enemy, but that's not everybody's path. I think it's really important to acknowledge that, for most people, hatred is something that is learned and it's also something that can be unlearned. 

"We know that the more people are exposed to people who are not like them, the more tolerant they become. I wanted a more complicated novel than one that simply said 'racism is bad.'"

I think it's really important to acknowledge that for most people hatred is something that is learned and it's also something that can be unlearned.

Hate can breed anywhere

"This is a tough book. It's a hard book and asks difficult questions, but they're worth asking.

"I wanted to show that this is not a problem that happens elsewhere. This is something that is happening now and happening here and you don't have to go that far from where you live to see it happening. I think that it's really important for Canadians and Americans to understand that this is close.

"This is not something that is so far away. Very quickly you adjust to the temperature of the water and I think that we're shrugging off how quickly and how brutally white supremacy is becoming normalized."

Alexi Zentner's comments have been edited for length and clarity. You can read more interviews in the How I Wrote It series here.

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