The Hippo


Apr 20, 2019








Jodi Picoult. Deborah Feingold photo.

Writers on a New England Stage, featuring Jodi Picoult

Where: The Music Hall, 28 Chestnut St., Portsmouth
When: Wednesday, Oct. 12, at 7 p.m.
Admission: $13.75; for each 1-2 tickets sold, purchase of book voucher for Small Great Things required
Contact:, 436-2400,

Talking about race
Jodi Picoult on her new book, Small Great Things

By Kelly Sennott

 New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult has been wanting to write about racism for 20 years.

The Hanover resident’s first attempt was at beginning of her career; she was drawn by a real-life event in New York City, where a black undercover police officer was shot multiple times by white colleagues, despite that he’d worn a wristband meant to allow officers to identify those undercover.
Picoult’s no stranger to controversial subjects, having written about rape, teen suicide, kids with cancer, school shootings and the Holocaust, among others. But this was different; she struggled to create authentic characters and had to put the book down.
“I didn’t know if I had the right to write the story of racism in the U.S. as a white woman. Obviously, I know plenty of authors of color who are telling the story, and who should be, and who are doing it really well,” Picoult said via phone last week. “I write from the perspective of people I’m not all the time. … But writing about race and racism is different. It’s hard to write about without offending people.”
In 2012, she read about Tonya Battle, an African-American labor and delivery nurse with more than 20 years of experience from Flint, Michigan, who was forbidden to care for a baby whose parents were white supremacists. In response, she filed a lawsuit, accusing staff of not allowing her to do her job because of her race. She won.
“It got me thinking — what if that nurse had been the only person present when something went wrong with the baby? What if she had to choose between following orders or saving the baby’s life? What if, as a result, she ended up on trial with a white public defender who, like me and my friends, would never consider herself a racist?” Picoult said.
The result is the book Small Great Things, which follows a Connecticut labor and delivery nurse, Ruth Jefferson, who finds herself in that exact situation. It’s set to be released Oct. 11, and she visits Portsmouth to talk about her latest project the day after, Wednesday, Oct. 12, as part of the Writers on a New England Stage series. 
This time around, the writing worked because Picoult’s message was different.
“I wasn’t trying to tell people of color how different their lives are. That’s not my story to tell, and I have no right to tell it,” Picoult said.
Instead, she’s writing to her white population of readers, who can easily point to a skinhead and say, “That’s racist,” but who can’t always recognize racism in themselves.
“And that, ultimately, is the story of Small Great Things,” Picoult said. “Racism is not just about prejudice, but also about power. It’s a pure and simple fact that, if you live in the United States and you were born white, you have power and you have opportunity that people of color do not have. … When you start to think about the free passes you get because of the color of your skin, they start to add up very fast. It’s humbling and shocking. … But people don’t like to talk about that. We much prefer to pretend our success is a result of luck or hard work.”
In New Hampshire, she thinks those conversations happen even less.
“This is like one of the whitest states in the country!” Picoult said. “There are so many white people who are well-meaning and kind-hearted. They’re people who want to say and do the right thing, and for that reason, they don’t talk about racism. They don’t have the words to do it and are afraid of saying the wrong thing. What I want this book to do is start that discussion. I think it’s better to say the wrong thing, apologize and learn from it than to not say anything at all.”
The book required extensive research, as do all her novels, including interviews with 30 people, who also acted as sensitivity readers later on. One of the first was Beverly Daniel Tatum, former president of Spelman College and a well-known racial justice writer, whom Picoult visited in Atlanta during an ice storm. Tatum introduced Picoult to a number of young African-American women, who completed Picoult’s questionnaires and talked with her afterward. From their stories and others, she found the voice of her protagonist. 
“It’s not the job of a person of color to educate a white person. I was already breaking a rule. I was asking for grace more than anything else,” Picoult said.
She also read books by Tatum, Debby Irving, Michelle Alexander and David Shipler and interviewed a couple former skinheads. One was Frankie Meeink, who now works with the Anti-Defamation League — she learned about him through an event promoting her novel The Storyteller. Another was Tim Zaal, who’d spoken to her daughter’s history class about hate crimes. 
It’s easier for Picoult to secure interviews now that she has more than 20 books under her belt. The internet helps, too; she learns about many people through social media, networking and news articles. She finished her research with 1,200 pages of notes and transcripts in hand. 
It was the hardest book she ever wrote.
“I knew I couldn’t ask my readers to unpack their biases if I didn’t do the same,” Picoult said. “I learned a lot about myself that was not too flattering. I went to social justice workshops and left in tears every night. … There were things that happened in my household when I was younger that I never thought of as racist, but were. … In college, I had a good black friend who I met in class — she was a poet who loved writing, and I used to grab lunch with her, but we never went out on weekends. Why? I asked myself questions I never had to ask myself before.”
She hopes the book provokes these kinds of questions and conversations, and so far, it’s working. She had recently presented Small Great Things with three other white authors at a Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance event. Two hundred filled the room. All but one were white.
“It was shocking. You could have heard a pin drop. There were outright gasps at certain points. At the end of it, I got a standing ovation,” Picoult said. “The guy of color who was sitting in the rear came up and starting talking to me — and then all of a sudden, he was crying. He said, ‘I’m so sorry, but you have to understand — I never thought I would hear something like that here.’” 

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