In the winter of 2014, University of Maryland alum Jason Reynolds and Boston native Brendan Kiely were sent off on tour together in support of their debut novels: When I Was the Greatest and The Gospel of Winter, respectively. During this tour, while sharing every meal and meeting for beers at the end of each night, the two writers of different races—Reynolds, African American; Kiely, white—forged a friendship that didn’t end when the tour did. Both current residents of New York City, they continued to meet regularly to eat, drink and talk about everything from politics to poetry.
It was their shared outrage over the shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014 that brought forth the passion that created Reynolds’ and Kiely’s joint project, the new novel All American Boys. The story follows a single explosive week in the lives of two teenage boys—one black (Rashad) and one white (Quinn). The issues explored in the book are ripped straight from current headlines and strike a relatable chord: police brutality, racism and a city rising up in response to one brutal beating.
All American Boys was named a 2016 Coretta Scott King Author Honor book, and has been selected as this year’s One Maryland One Book—now in its ninth year, the project encourages people from across the state to read the same topical book. The novel certainly speaks to anyone living in America, but it is particularly poignant for Baltimoreans who continue to grapple with the injustices surrounding the death of Freddie Gray and others.
Tell us about your decision to write this book together.
Brendan Kiely: When Michael Brown was shot, we wanted to do something about it. We decided we should write a book: a black man [Reynolds] and a white man [Kiely] writing two separate narratives that we would weave together.
Did you each write a section? Were you allowed to change each other’s words/sentences?
BK: It was a project in which we placed blind trust in each other. Jason would write Rashad’s perspective, and I would write Quinn’s. Each section would emerge from the authenticity of the author’s cultural experience. The book’s structure would echo Martin Luther King’s famous line about two Americas living side by side.
Jason Reynolds: There were a few moments where motifs in our separate sections—metaphors and subcontexts we hadn’t discussed—played out perfectly on the page, surprising us both. The most obvious was this play on invisibility. Brendan had no idea that I was writing about the artwork of Aaron Douglas [the Harlem Renaissance painter whose work depicted historical and current issues in ways that illuminated the African-American experience], and I didn’t know he was going to have Quinn’s class explore [African-American author] Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It was a true eureka moment, making it clear that this process was just as much intuitive as it was technical.
JR: I’m not even sure if it’s flipping as much as it’s a rounding and humanization of a black boy. My older brother was an artist and was terrible at basketball. This isn’t a stroke of genius, just an actual depiction and a turning away from easy, one-dimensional, hackneyed caricature.
BK: I wanted Quinn to be the kind of guy who was used to getting away with corner store crimes like stealing alcohol and a guy with a family history in which violence has been glorified. We wanted both Rashad and Quinn to have to ask themselves who they are as individuals and who they want to become despite the family, social, stereotypical and cultural pressures telling them who they “should” be.
Rashad’s arrest and everything that followed was frustrating to experience as a reader. I think powerlessness is one of the worst feelings a human can have.
BK: I agree that powerlessness is an awful feeling. One’s whiteness is a social power in America. To deny that is dangerous. Quinn’s struggle with powerlessness is the struggle to accept the power he does have and what to do with it.
JR: I wanted Rashad’s narrative to serve as a tightening vice grip on the apathy of so many. I wanted people to struggle but to have to deal with the fact that if you closed the book before finishing that first brutal scene, you’ve once more turned your back on a truth that many people of color in this country can’t turn their backs on. But if you could get through it, then maybe you’ll come away from it feeling a bit more empathetic. A bit more human.
There’s the wonderful Desmond Tutu quote in this book, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Is this book a way for you to call others to action?
JR: It’s a way for us to call an end to neutrality, but I’m not sure if it’s enough. I think neutrality has to be constantly fought against in the way that humility takes a lifetime of practice. Every day, I have to ask myself, “Who am I?”
BK: If we pretend there is no legacy of Jim Crow in American society today, if we deny it or do nothing to consciously combat that legacy, what are we doing? In that context, Desmond Tutu’s quote seems all the more important to reflect on. Especially for other white Americans, like me.