A Writer's Personal Story About His Divided Kansas City Is One Tale In 'Two Americas'

Sep 8, 2017

The new book “Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation" includes contributions from 36 "major contemporary writers" including Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Russo and Roxane Gay.

In that distinguished company is Kansas City novelist Whitney Terrell, who spoke with KCUR about working with the collection's distinguished editor, John Freeman, and how he ended up writing what might be considered his first personal essay.

KNIGGENDORF: "Will you talk a little bit about who John Freeman is?"

TERRELL: "John Freeman is the former editor of Granta and now has his own literary journal called Freeman’s. He’s an editor with a moral conscience, and he’s an editor who really knows almost everybody in the literary community in America, across all races and classes. He’s a gatherer of people and a really unifying force in the literary world. He did a piece, 'Tale of Two Cities,' all about income inequality in New York, and he recognized that this problem of income inequality is a national thing. He wanted to give authors from across the country a chance to write about it. You’ll see writers from all over the place, including, believe it or not, some Midwesterners."

KNIGGENDORF: "Your essay in this is called 'A Good Neighbor is Hard to Find.' Will you give us a synopsis of that?"

TERRELL: "This essay is based on my relationship with this young man, Terry Hemmitt, who moved in next door to me. He was African-American, I’m white, and we had this kind of uneasy relationship. I mean, he was present in our lives and he was there, but I didn’t really know how to interact with him or what kind of role I could have in his life."

KNIGGENDORF: "Why did you think you needed to have some sort of role?"

TERRELL: "Because he was a neighbor. Because I was friends with my other neighbors there, and I liked Terry and I wanted to have a role in his life. The question is the complicated barriers between us because of race and because of our different class backgrounds, and figuring out what would be an appropriate way for us to have an ongoing relationship.

One thing we ended up deciding to do was, he really wanted to go to Kansas University, so that was something I could legitimately help with. I helped him write his essays. I took him up to KU for an interview and I had this moment of intense recognition of basically what people would call white privilege, driving Terry through the town of Lawrence. Suddenly I’m looking at it from Terry’s point of view. I’m thinking, 'OK, who's he going to be friends with? Who’s he going to hang out with?'"

KNIGGENDORF: "And you say he was there for just one semester?"

TERRELL: "Yeah, he loved it, and he couldn’t afford it. Even if he had a scholarship, and he was working at a shoe store in Overland Park, he said that he was still $5,000 in debt after his first semester. Which is interesting, how expensive we have made our state schools."

KNIGGENDORF: "There was that moment in here when you first meet him and his grandmother is trying to get him to go back in the house and do his homework. She says, 'Well, that’s better than anything he’s got to offer.' That really seems to bother you."

Whitney Terrell's essay in 'Tales of Two Americas' is called 'A Good Neighbor Is Hard to Find.'
Credit Penguin Random House

TERRELL: "It didn’t. I understood that she was trying to communicate with me. She was trying to say, 'Draw some boundaries' in terms of my relationship with her grandson. And I think she also had some natural skepticism of me as a person because I was a writer and I sat around and wrote all day in my back room and weeded the garden and wore crummy clothes all the time. But also she was very protective of Terry. It was a very vulnerable time for him."

KNIGGENDORF: "I think of you mainly as a fiction writer so, when you were approached by John Freeman about contributing to this book, was your initial thought to do a piece that was fictional?"

TERRELL: "I thought of writing about Terry right away. He and I talked a lot about this essay, and I showed it to him and he read it several times and made suggestions and corrections, and it was a way of remembering what our relationship was like at that time. We didn’t know that either one of us was going make it through that period. Today, he is a master sergeant in the Air Force and lives in D.C. and he ended up getting his BA from Ashford University in organizational management. And he graduated magna cum laude, which was awesome."

KNIGGENDORF: "Often, you’ve written from the points of view of someone completely unlike yourself. In 'The Huntsman,' you write from the point of view of a young black man — you take the empathy that can accompany literature a step further than a lot of writers by actually stepping into those shoes yourself. I really enjoyed this essay because it’s your point of view."

TERRELL: "This is really the first time I’ve ever written anything that would even remotely resemble a personal essay that contains my feelings. I prefer, generally, to have some separation between myself and the characters I’m writing about."

KNIGGENDORF: "At the end, you say that Terry’s gone from Kansas City — he got out and you don’t anticipate that he’ll come back. You say that that makes him a stronger man than you are."

TERRELL: "Yeah, I think that’s true. I’m saying that within the context of how systemic structural racism affects people. Terry wanted to leave that system. But to get out requires an act of cutting off ties, and it wasn’t going to be enough for him to go to KU. He needed to get further away. So joining the military ended up being the thing that worked for him and that takes a lot of strength."

KNIGGENDORF: "Thinking of other essays, do you have any that particularly spoke to you? I thought that the essay by (Wichita-based) Sarah Smarsh, which is actually the physical centerpiece of this book, managed to really embody what the project was about. It’s called 'Blood Brother,' and it’s written in second person, so it’s addressing the reader."

TERRELL: "Well, it’s about the plasma industry and her brother giving plasma. Her brother has a college degree, and yet still he isn’t able to make enough money to finance his life so he has to give his blood away to wealthier people.

I wanted to bring up a statistic that came out recently that supports the project of this book. Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman just published a paper called 'Income and Wealth Inequality,' and they say that from 1980 to 2014, the average pretax income of the bottom 50 percent of wage-earners in America has not changed. It’s totally stagnant. Whereas the income during that same time, 1980 to 2014, the top 1 percent income went up by 205 percent."

KNIGGENDORF: "It’s hard to imagine that."

TERRELL: "So many of the things that we’re seeing as social unrest in our country come out of this primary source, and the government is going to have to do something to address it. There are also good statistics to show how black Americans get paid less than white Americans, or people of color get paid less, and that’s also a part of this. But the bottom 50 percent means that everybody — it includes everyone from every race — needs to join together as a force rather than work against each other and try to find a way to force the government to listen to their interests."

KNIGGENDORF: "I love that John Freeman says he’s making a new framework that isn’t about statistics, it isn’t about numbers, it’s about stories and it’s about personal experiences. And that maybe that has been one of the missing elements to this."

TERRELL: "Yes, I agree. I think it’s important to know the statistics that are underneath the narrative, but just repeating statistics aren’t going to move people in the way that the narratives in this particular volume do. I hope that people will continue to write about this. I think they will."

Follow KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf