Isabel Wilkerson, CASTE

Isabel Wilkerson, CASTE

Zibby Owens: Welcome to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” Isabel Wilkerson. I’m so excited that you’re here to talk about Caste.

Isabel Wilkerson: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: You must be exhausted. You must be doing a thousand interviews every day. You’re on every list of recommended books everywhere. How are you holding up?

Isabel: You just power through because this is what you have to do. No one could’ve expected how this year would turn out. You just simply could not have imagined. The idea of working on something for so long and so hard and then to introduce it to the world in the midst of a global pandemic, you just never could’ve imagined. I want to always say, of course, that compared to people who are really experiencing challenges in this world at this time, this is so low on the totem pole in terms of what I’m going through here at all. It’s not in the same category of true suffering, but it does create challenges. It can be exhausting, but it’s necessary. I’m just glad that we have ways to be able to speak to people and to be able to communicate, as I am here with you. What would we do without it?

Zibby: I don’t know. We’d be back in another century. We can dive back into some of your research. We can imagine what it would be like. I’m glad you’re holding up enough to at least chit-chat a little today. Your book, before I read it, my mother was like, “This is the most amazing book you’ll ever read.” When I know that, I’m like, all right, I better sit down and button up. Then we have to have a whole talk about it. Obviously, everybody’s mother and sibling and everyone has now read this book, which is amazing. Tell me about all the research it took to do this, about the thousands of interviews for both this and The Warmth of Other Suns. Also, what do you think makes a great interview? How do you extract the information you need from other people?

Isabel: Those are really great questions. For one thing, the work that I do is called narrative nonfiction. It combines what ideally would be the best of both worlds, meaning that you have to do a tremendous amount of research in order to find and to be able to determine and excavate truths that are verifiable fact that help explain some phenomenon. Then you translate that into a narrative using many of the tools that novelists would use so that the best of both worlds would be, you’re learning something, you exposed a phenomenon you otherwise would not know about, but it’s told in such a way that, hopefully, it builds suspense. It’s a page-turner. It tells a story. You get involved in the people. To do that takes a long time. I say that I have sort of have a gestational lifespan of an elephant. It takes a lot time. The Warmth of Other Suns took fifteen years. I’d say that if it were a human being, it would be in high school and dating. That’s how long it took me to work on that book. Then this one, I got a little bit better. It took about eight years of germinating and distilling it and thinking about it. In the course of that, it means that one project leads into the other. This grew out The Warmth of Other Suns, which is where I started first using the word caste to describe the hierarchies built into our country going back to colonial times. I used that word because it was the most comprehensive, accurate way to describe the world that a lot of us don’t even know about.

It’s a world in which the hierarchy of the American South, for much of our country’s history, was so tightly delineated. It was this graded ranking of human value that went on until, essentially, the 1970s, legally, formally, until basically the 1960s legislation, but then didn’t take effect until the 1970s. This was a world where it was against the law for black people and white people to merely play checkers together in Birmingham. There was a white Bible and an altogether separate black Bible to swear to tell the truth on it in court. The very word of God was segregated in that era. It could mean your very life if you breached any of the protocols and laws of that system. That’s what I was describing in The Warmth of Other Suns. That was the term I started to use, caste. It was more evocative. It was more comprehensive. It was language that anthropologists who had studied the Jim Crow South actually used as well. The second book grew out of the first. What started it was really what happened with Trevon Martin. He was a teenager walking home from a convenience store in a suburban subdivision in Florida where his very image, what he looked like, was viewed as suspicious by someone who stopped and ultimately killed him. That actually occurred in an area, a part of Florida, that — one of the protagonists from The Warmth of Other Suns was from that same area, so it sparked my interest and attention from the very start. I wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times connecting caste to what had happened to him. That was really the beginning of my thinking that led to this book.

Zibby: Tell me a little bit about when you interview people, what you do to get them to open up. What are some of the things you look for when you’re talking to somebody new? What is that about for you? What are some of the things that you’ve really taken away from people you’ve met all over the world?

Isabel: That’s such a great question because I don’t consider myself to do interviews, really. The kind of work that I’m doing takes a lot of time. I both don’t have enough time — there’s never enough time, apropos of the title of your podcast.

Zibby: Nobody has any time for anything. Yes.

Isabel: There’s this Cuban saying. I believe it’s Cuban. It says something along the lines of, slow down, I’m in a hurry. I think that’s an interesting way of thinking about life itself. Because there’s never enough time and yet the work that I do takes time, I end up allowing myself the time to spend with people as opposed to a Q&A because I’m not going to be able to learn what I need to learn if I have a set of questions for the work that I do. The work that I do is attempting to get deep into the heart and the minds of people, into their motivations, into their thoughts, their dreams, their triumphs and their tribulations, what they’ve actually been through. It’s hard to even formulate a single question that will elicit from someone, your deepest dreams, thoughts, and motivation. I have to spend time with people. I generally do more closely what we would identify with anthropologists, which is participant observation, ethnography, spending time with them, getting to know them in a more relaxed and hopefully more holistic way. It just takes a tremendous amount of time. It does.

For The Warmth of Other Suns, for example, in order to find the protagonists for that book, I had to go to the places where they would be. I went to — there were actually Baptist churches in Brooklyn where everyone was from South Carolina. There were Catholic churches in California where everyone was from Louisiana. Obviously, I was writing about the Great Migration of people who went from the South and then spread out to the rest of the country following beautifully predictable streams. That’s what I found in the process of that. I interviewed over twelve hundred people for that, basically a casting call. It was like auditioning people for the role of the being a protagonist in this book. That’s where I had a chance to meet many, many people. For the most part, I, in some ways, throw out prompts just to get people talking and to see where that leads and to allow them to talk. Whatever it is that can get them to feel comfortable and to talk is what I would do. Generally, it means asking fewer questions than you might think.

A lot of it is responding to what they’ve said to keep the conversation going, to make it conversational, to sort of sit at their knee and to hear their experiences, to make it comfortable for them, essentially, to till the soil to make it receptive to whatever is pouring forth from them. That’s what this is all about. It just takes a lot of time. It really does. Some of those people end up telling me things that they hadn’t told their own children because they had been through so much pain and trauma that they didn’t want to burden their children with that. They didn’t want to revisit it. That was post-traumatic stress for a lot of the people who endured and suffered and survived Jim Crow. They were telling me things that were very, very painful. The most that I can do is be the very best listener that I can be, be encouraging, empathetic, understanding, and to validate their experiences and their feelings. That’s what my job is.

Zibby: Once you have to absorb all of that stress and trauma and history and narrative that’s very disturbing, how do you then walk away and have a normal night? How do you extract yourself from that intensity and deal with those emotions, aside from obviously turning it into a best-selling narrative nonfiction book? Emotionally, how do you toggle back and forth from that intimacy, really?

Isabel: It’s probably one’s individual constitution that makes the person more likely to be able to think long term about something. That’s how I am. These are huge projects that take a long time. I go into it knowing that it’s going to take a long time. I’m going to have to sit with it, live with it for a long time. There’s several answers to that question. One of them is that I often focus in on people with whom I already have developed or feel there is some kind of connection. There is some chemistry that makes me feel that I want to spend time with them and they want to spend time with me because this is a long-haul journey here. This is really years in the making. You have to feel that there is connection that can power you through. That’s one of them. In the case for the things I do, I end up absorbing myself into what their lives has been. I am, by definition, kind of an empath. I just am, so I absorb it. That’s just who I am. Knowing that it’s going to be for the long haul, it means that I have absorbed who they are into my being. They become part of me. I just live with it. They become part of me. All of the people that I write about on some level become part of me. I don’t view that as draining as much as enriching because I get to know these amazing, incredible people. If I didn’t have a chemistry and love for them, then it would be harder for the reader to experience that as well. If I feel this love and connection to them, then reader will as well.

I think that the way particularly The Warmth of Other Suns has been received — the book has been out for ten years. It was on the best-seller list when it first came out. It’s back on the best-seller list again ten years later. It’s incredible. I think that that’s because people can feel the connection, the love, the empathy. They can see themselves in the people. I say that narrative nonfiction is the closest that you get to be another person. We know that empathy can be elicited when we read novels. Narrative nonfiction allows you to feel that same empathy for people who were real, who actually existed. What allows me to get through it is my sense of connection, compassion, and in fact, love and admiration for the people that I’m writing about. That does not mean that I’m writing about them as if they’re perfect. You get to see them in their full humanity. It actually is a disservice to people to overly romanticize a person. I think that a full humanity means the range of emotions and experiences, and so that’s what comes through. That’s one of the things that powers me through, that gets me through the really difficult aspects.

The other thing is ultimately the reader. I embark upon these projects, these massive research immersions, because I ultimately want to share this with readers. I’m thinking about the reader the whole time. Thinking about the reader and knowing that ultimately whatever it is that I’m having to experience, suffer, go through will reach someone else, that’s what inspires me. I love the definition that Tolstoy gives for art. He says that art is the transfer of emotion from one person to another. That’s a beautiful, concise description of art, the most beautiful that I’ve heard. That is what this is. This is literally being the person in between the sender of emotion and experience, and the receiver of that emotion and experience. The sender is the person whose story is being told. The receiver is the reader who is now getting to learn and immerse him or herself in someone else’s story. I am the intercessor. I am the interpreter of that experience. That’s what I’m thinking about too. It’s not complete until it gets out of me and out to the reader. That’s what also inspires me and motivates me even for some of the really difficult parts of the work that I have to do.

Zibby: How did this all get started? You referred to your constitution earlier. Were you always this empathic? Give me a picture of you in seventh grade or preschool. Were you always the one connecting everybody? When did you know you wanted to embark on these deep dives into other people’s lives?

Isabel: Actually, like a lot of writers, I’m an introvert, probably an extreme introvert. I think a lot of writers are observers. They’re people who were always the quiet one with a book in hand, that child in bed with the flashlight under the covers reading a book. That was who I was and am. I was feeling that connection through the stories that I was reading growing up. I was also the person who was usually the quiet one on the sidelines observing all the action that other people might have been in the midst of. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t times where I might have been involved. Generally speaking, I’m very content to be the one who’s watching, observing, interpreting, examining, and thinking about what is going on around me. The way that it comes out is through the writing. That’s how it comes out.

Zibby: I think you can maybe put aside your flashlight. I think you’ve graduated to perhaps a lamp on your bedside table at this point. What do you think? Are you still hiding?

Isabel: No, symbolically, of course. I’m long past that. It’s the idea of being able to lose yourself in a story.

Zibby: No, I’m kidding. I feel the same way. I also had a flashlight. Literally, I would hide in my bathroom and read Charlotte’s Web. Now my husband sleeps next to me, and the light is on. I’m the same way. I was also very quiet and observing as a kid. I relate to everything you’re saying. It’s awesome. In your book, you set out, obviously, all these different paradigms for analyzing societies, especially how we’ve gotten to where we are now through the lens of both cultures in India and the Holocaust and Jim Crow South and everything as to why we are the way we are, and perhaps we should look at it differently. I was just wondering, having gone through this complete analysis of our society as it stands today, how hopeful are you? What would you tell kids who are growing up now in this environment knowing what you know and all you’ve researched and everything? What would your advice to them be? Do you feel optimistic about where we can go, or not?

Isabel: I wouldn’t have written these books if I were not optimistic. It takes a lot of faith and optimism to embark on something that will take years to complete with no guarantee of how it’s going to turn out, no guarantee of what the world will be like by the time it comes out. Will people even be interested by the time you finally finish this thing you started? It takes a lot of faith and optimism to even start down the path that each of these books began with. I wouldn’t have written them if I weren’t optimistic. Of course, one of the missions and purpose of these books is to help illuminate aspects of our country’s history that we otherwise would not know so that we can together find ways to transcend these artificial barriers and boundaries that have been created long before even our ancestors were thought of. This is going back to the seventeenth century colonial America before there were the United States of America. The goal of this is to shine a light on these aspects of this old house that we call America.

I use this analogy, this metaphor, about our country being like an old house that we’ve all inherited. None of us alive are the ones who built it, but it’s our responsibility now that we are in this house. That’s the purpose of all of this. The purpose is to somehow find a way to recognize what we have inherited, to really look closely at what we’ve inherited in hopes that we can make the improvements, make the repairs, the massive repairs that are necessary in order for to be as strong as it needs to be. That’s where my hopefulness comes, and also people’s response to what happened over the summer after George Floyd. There was a sense of alarm and outrage that was absolutely warranted and that many, many people, not just in our country, but around the world felt and responded to, and a sense that this should not be happening in this country or any country, but especially not in our country given our creed and what we stand for. It should not be happening now. I think that that’s where I get a lot of hopefulness, the fact that people did respond, the fact that people did recognize how woeful and how tragic that this is happening in our current era.

Zibby: This is probably none of my business, but when you are not being a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and researcher and of the amazing things that you’re doing to help the country, what do you do in your spare time? What do you enjoy doing? How do you use time when you’re not at your desk or at your computer? What are some of your things that make you tick?

Isabel: Sadly, for a lot of the last year or so, and especially with what’s going on now in COVID, that takes up a vast majority of my waking time because that’s what the circumstances require. The question you’re asking is almost pre-COVID. So much of my time is spent just absolutely loving being able to travel and to see new and amazing cultures, connecting in that way. That’s massively central to who I am, obviously. I love to spend time out in nature in any way that I can, and especially digging in the soil and the art of what can happen when you plant something and have it to grow. I’m such a tremendous, tremendous animal lover, animal rights advocate. I just absolutely can’t imagine life without having some kind of animal in one’s life. I’m a big dog lover. I love all kinds of animals. What I’m saying is there are many, many sources of joy in addition, of course, to family and friends and what’s really important in life. The circumstance in which that we find ourselves now means that the world is the way that it is. That’s what’s necessary right now. For writers, it’s not as difficult to transition to the world that we’re in now in terms of being interior, being still engaged with words and engaged with talking about words. That’s very, very natural because that’s what we do.

Zibby: I was literally just saying yesterday that I couldn’t — I have a black lab that I recently inherited from my mother-in-law who passed away. I have fallen in love. I was like, I can’t believe that I have the capacity for this much love for an animal. Every time I’m with her thinking about how much I love her, I’m already thinking, what am I going to do when she’s not around? which is stupid. With people, you can fool yourself that they’ll be around forever. With animals, you can’t. At least, I’ve found you can’t have that.

Isabel: COVID has been such a devastation to everyone and more particularly, people who have suffered from it directly, clearly. It’s been going on for long enough that many things, both good and bad, in life also happened because it’s been going on for so long. One of the things that happened is that I lost my beloved westie who was seventeen. He’d made it to seventeen. In the early months of COVID, he passed away. You realize how they work their way into your heart in ways that you don’t expect, in ways that humans don’t. It’s a different kind of love. They’re by your side, essentially living for you, waiting for every gesture coming from you. They literally exist for you. They become so much a part of your life that you don’t even think about it until they’re no longer there. There were two. We had two. Now there’s one. He made it to seventeen, and so I can’t complain.

Zibby: I’m so sorry to hear that. On the street yesterday, I was walking the dog. This older man came over and was just like, “Can I stop and pet the dog?” Of course, I’m with my mask, like, why is he coming so close to me? He’s like, “I lost my German shepherd after fourteen years. It’s only been three weeks. I just have to hug your dog.” My heart broke. Yeah, animal love. Anyway, last question because I know you have to go soon, do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Isabel: I don’t have anything that you haven’t probably heard before, so I apologize in advance for not being any more insightful about this. We’re often told, read, read, read. Read good things, things that you admire, and things that you could learn from because they’re not as good as they could be. There are people who say write every single day. That is true. It’s probably a great idea. I, however, believe that there are some of us who — I actually do better when I am writing because I feel as if I am bursting with something that has to be on the page, where I cannot stop myself from having to write. That, I find to be more productive. When you have to write and you’re on deadline, of course you write. I find that, to me, the most inspiring and inspired and effective writing comes from when I feel as if, oh, my god, where’s a piece of paper? I need to write this down right this second. I just have to write this down before I lose it.

One suggestion I would have is to always have pen and paper or whatever it is. If you write in your device, have it available. If something hits you, write it down then. Do not assume that it will be there tomorrow or next week or next month. If something hits you, some revelation or some way of thinking about something, some idea, some turn of phrase, write it down right then and there because it may not be there again. The mind works in mysterious ways. You need to capture it while you can. I always have something nearby that I can write on, envelopes. It doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, always have something nearby. I would say to be kind to one’s self when things aren’t coming as you wish them to be. Know that if you’ve done it before, you can do it again. It will come. Be patient with yourself. I personally, as I said, don’t believe in suffering and torturing yourself when it’s not coming, when it’s not working. I just don’t feel that you should suffer. Of course, if you’re on deadline, that’s a different thing. You’ve got to get it done. The most beautiful things that are more naturally, holistically emerging from your subconscious will come when you least expect. Be there to capture it.

Also, in terms of being kind to one’s self and patient with one’s self is to realize that all times when you’re working on something, your subconscious is working all the time. It is constantly trying to make sense of what it knows has to come out of you. To know that even when you’re not in front of a screen, or for people who — there are many people who still do write in longhand. I like combining both. Whatever I write in longhand is usually going to be, often, the most powerful, meaningful, oddly enough, well-constructed observation or passage, generally. I don’t know why that happens. Maybe there’s some direct connection from the brain going through the neck and then through the arms and into hands. I don’t know. Maybe somebody has studied that. That’s what I find. To know that we are working even when we’re not in front of the screen, the subconscious is constantly trying to make sense of it because it knows it has a job to do. It knows that it needs to get this thing written. It absolutely knows it. It’s working on it whether we realize it or not. Then when it reveals itself to us and when we sit down to write, then it can all pour forth. That’s how I work. That’s what works for me.

Zibby: Maybe this can be your next book, how the brain and the hand interact. You can go around the country and talk to every writer. I think that would be really cool. I’m sure you have other ideas. Thank you so much for your time and for the fantastic contributions to literature and for the conversation.

Isabel: Thank you. I so enjoyed it. Thank you.

Zibby: Have a great day. Buh-bye.

Isabel: You as well. Bye.

Isabel Wilkerson, CASTE