photo by Clare Welsh
Maurice Carlos Ruffin brings witty humor to dystopian satire of race relations in his debut novel
We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin tells the story of an African-American father who is a successful lawyer in an alternative world that has discovered a surgical method for “demelanization.” For sufficient cash, any African American can become “white” in skin and features, and even have official documents changed to show race as “American White.” This medical development places the father in a horrible mental bind: should he protect his young son by “demelanizing” him so he can live his life as a white man? The eventual playing out of this narrative is bitingly funny, multilayered, and simultaneously a scathing indictment of the subtle mental devastation wreaked by racism.
Reviewers have noted Ruffin’s razor-sharp wit that informs his satire. Traditionally, satire has involved an exaggeration of a certain cultural trend to emphasize its absurd aspects. But how does one even exaggerate the absurdities of racism in the real world?
“I always wanted to push the novel into the future,” Ruffin says. ‘But as I tried to present a situation that was more extreme than reality, I keep encountering situations in my reading that made me think. How do you classify “extreme” when as an author you are describing these very extreme, real situations that have existed throughout time?”
Nonetheless, especially in the first third of the novel, Ruffin creates some hilarious, absurdist scenes in which his lawyer protagonist tries to earn the favor of his mostly white law firm. The scenes are so edgy and witty that they feel fresh even for today’s worldly readers.
“Many other writers have chosen satire when writing about racism,” Ruffin says. “Racism is absurd: when you see it, you think, why would you treat someone like that based on the color of their skin? So satire is a way of making that absurdity more visible. But some reviewers have hesitated to call this novel satire because of the relationship between the father and the son. Sometimes in satire, the author will try to make readers not care about the characters, but I tried to make the father and son human and relatable.”
Balancing humor and humanity
His characters are human and their situation resonates with real urgency, despite frequent witty asides. Ruffin also develops numerous groups and characters that reflect some of the thornier questions of racial identity in American culture.
“The most direct ancestor of this book is Ellison’s Invisible Man,” he says. “When I read it as a young black man, it made me feel for the first time that my experience had been represented. It made me feel that I had been understood. So I hope my work will also have that effect, and that people will stretch themselves to get at the truth.”
Ruffin chuckles when asked about the glowing reviews of his debut novel, which feature phrases like “instant classic.” He adds with the same humor that informs his writing, “Like they say, go big or go home! Literary people are shy but we’re all trying to create something that people will engage with for a long time. So when I hear things like that, I just hope that maybe I did create something that will last.”
Ruffin adroitly balances serious cultural issues with the novel’s lighter moments. He thinks the ability to interweave pain with humor comes from his writing process. “For me, writing is a joyous process and people who mention the humor in the novel are sensing me enjoying working with my narrator,” Ruffin says. “He’s just not a morose person. When things aren’t going well, we turn to humor, history, or religion to lighten the load—things that lie at the heart of being human.”
Maurice Carlos Ruffin will appear in a moderated discussion panel at the Arkansas Literary Festival on Saturday, April 27, 2019.
Maurice Carlos Ruffin is a recipient of an Iowa Review Award in fiction. His work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, and The Kenyon Review. A New Orleans native, Ruffin is a graduate of the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop and a member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance.