Western Mail - Weekend

Portrait of a

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“Ta-nehisi Coates says that Americans can be dreamers – they’re in this American dream and they don’t see the American dream doesn’t belong to everybody.

“Another writer, Thomas Chatterton Williams, talks about the privilege to be oblivious that white Americans have. The book to me is about white Americans’ blindness to racism.”

She’s aware that, in the US, guns are also in the mix, creating a particular­ly toxic and incendiary environmen­t.

“I think this particular brand of racism is American in that we have the racism that you see all over the world, combined with a gun culture that has really got out of control,” she says.

“In December, it’ll be 20 years since I moved to the UK and the gun situation in the US has become much worse during that time. There is now more than one gun per capita in the States. Some people own 20 guns, most of my friends don’t own guns, so it’s kind of a skewed statistic – but things happen.

“I grew up in Danbury, Connecticu­t, which is next door to Newtown, where the Sandy Hook shooting was, and even after schoolchil­dren were killed and we had a Democratic president, we were not able to tighten gun laws.

“There is a blindness to it and there’s an acceptance of it. There’s also a huge lobby of corporatio­ns making money off guns that have made it a cultural issue. So it’s the gun culture combined with racism that creates a very particular American problem.”

For Burns, who has lived in Cardiff since 2009 (“I met a Welshman,” she explains), this was an issue she could not ignore.

“You turn on the BBC and there’s another cop shooting of a black person who was not doing anything wrong,” she says. “To hear that again and again and again is just horrifying – and personally horrifying to me as an American. And so, as a writer, I just had to write about that in some way – it wasn’t really a choice.”

She’s aware that not all white writers feel the same. Many completely ignore racism in their writing – perhaps through collective blindness or due to being unsure how to appropriat­ely tackle the topic as a white person.

“It is very tricky writing about race and racism as a white writer,” she says. “I was aware that I had to be extremely sensitive and extremely careful that I didn’t fall into writing about black people in some kind of stereotypi­cal way.”

Her narrator, Cassie, is white and her role as a reporter enables her to collect views from the constellat­ion of characters surroundin­g the central murder. To write convincing­ly, she researched everything from gun laws to the processes around freedom of informatio­n requests, slipping easily back into her previous role as a journalist – she wrote for titles such as the New York Times and the Washington Post before switching to writing books.

“When I was first researchin­g this book, I had a sabbatical and I spent many weeks in Washington DC, where I used to live,” she says. “One of the high schools there, which was called Wilson High School at the time, allowed me to come to sit in their classroom and talk to the principal and some of the students.”

Some of the students were setting up a group to investigat­e and address racial divisions in the school. This became the One Whitman Group in the novel.

“The best research I did was just being in that school, talking to those students, being in the classroom and talking to the principal and the teachers,” she says.

The result is a book that explores one of the most difficult and pressing topics of our time with the rigour of a journalist and the pace and pull of a born storytelle­r. It also explores the nature, function and malfunctio­n of memory, the problems with returning to the place where we grew up and the way things from the past can look very different when viewed again as an adult.

“As kids, when you’re in somebody’s home, they forget you’re there and you see things that your mother would never see. You might hear parents arguing or you might see somebody being really short with one of their kids, or mean to the dog. I wanted to explore the idea of what it would be like if, years later, you looked back and realised that you saw something you didn’t understand at the time.”

The missing or unreliable memories of the night Joe is killed ultimately hold the key to the mystery – and perhaps reading this book will help to free some people in the real world of their collective amnesia.

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