Percival Everett's The Trees imagines a world where the horrors of lynching are avenged
In 1955, the abduction and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in the town of Money, Miss., brought nationwide attention to racial violence and injustice. The perpetrators were never punished. But in Percival Everett's powerful new novel, The Trees, that history comes back to haunt Money's white townsfolk, in a wave of retribution for the brutal legacy of lynching in the American South.
A sharp, satirical critique of white supremacy, The Trees is Everett's 22nd novel. He's a master of many different genres, from crime fiction to retellings of Greek myth, from revisionist Westerns to absurdist capers. His work has earned him literary awards and a reputation as one of the most provocative contemporary writers.
Percival Everett was born in Georgia in 1956 and grew up in Columbia, S.C. In addition to writing more than 30 books, he's also an accomplished visual artist and worked for 12 years training horses and mules.
Percival Everett spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from Pasadena, Calif.
A history of violence
"I remember, fairly well, the beginning of this novel. I was walking to play tennis and a song popped into my head that I had just listened to. It was Lyle Lovett singing the traditional song called Ain't No More Cane.
"I went back and listened to his version of it again, and the idea of the novel fell into place. It's about lynching, it's about finding bodies at the end of every turned row. The singing, especially the gospel singers behind Lovett — and his voice is really exceptional, I think, anyway — together they made it sort of airy and moving.
"Even the most casual student of American history sees lynching everywhere. As I was making this novel, it was the 100-year anniversary of Red Summer, which was 1919. It was called that because there were so many racial lynchings in the United States at that time.
"And not just individual lynchings, and not just several people, and not only Black Americans, but there were also riots in Chicago and in Greenwood, Miss. There was just mass murder everywhere, and these names were lost.
"There were so many photographs of lynchings — an industry of these things, actually moving through the mail to people. It's a terrible, scary, embarrassing episode — or, I should say, portion of American history that is not really addressed. It's not taught in middle school. It's not taught in high schools, but it's no less important than it ever was — perhaps more so, because it tells us more about ourselves, if we've grown some as a culture.
"I'm not smart enough to know how anyone can watch lynching as a sporting event. The photographs of lynchings: this is another source of the novel. When you look at the smiling faces present in a photograph as they hover over the burned body of a man — I'm thinking particularly of an image from Elaine, Ark., in, maybe, 1918 — I wondered, '50 years later, when these people are 70, how do they look at their grandchildren and continue? Do they tell their grandchildren that they were there? Do they tell their grandchildren that they smiled? Do they see anything wrong with the behaviour they exhibited those years ago?'"
It gives us artists some belief that we can affect the world because her singing actually scared a lot of people in this country.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
"Billie Holiday actually was told not to sing Strange Fruit by some mysterious U.S. government agent. I believe there was a film recently, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, about that song.
"The strange fruit hanging from trees are the bodies of Black men. It's a moving song — how could it not be? Billie Holiday's version is remarkable, much as Nina Simone's Mississippi Goddam.
"It's hard to render such horrible things in art. She managed to do it. It gives us artists some belief that we can affect the world because her singing actually scared a lot of people in this country. It moved a lot of people, but it also scared a lot of people."
Rethinking Black art
"I write people in the world — my people.
"The characters I know, because of my movement through the world, they tend to be American and Black. What I resist is the description 'Black art, Black literature, Black writer' — for one important political reason, and that is: the implication of such a descriptor suggests that there is some other kind of art that might be more mainstream or more grounded and in the world.
"If I were to walk into a bookstore and say to the proprietor, 'Can you direct me to the white fiction?', that person would be pretty confused. And, I think they should be as confused if I were to ask for Black fiction.
"So that's my political stance on trying to describe art in any kind of way that marginalizes or ghettoizes the work. I find that to be true of fiction that's called 'women's fiction.' I find it to be true of fiction that's called 'queer fiction' or 'queer poetry.'
"It's all art."
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.