Yesterday I was lucky enough to go and see Jodi Picoult talk about her latest book, Small Great Things. She is touring the world to spread her message of what she sees as her most important book yet, and the hardest book that she has written.
You can read my review of Small Great Things and it is out now to buy, and I hope that you do buy it, as it is an important book and one that I think people should read.
The timing of the release of Small Great Things is pretty amazing, given that the book focuses on prejudice, something that seems to be so prevalent in the world, with hate crime rising drastically in the UK after the Brexit vote and in the US after Trump won the election there. With France looking like they will also be electing someone who incites hate, perhaps this book is needed now more than ever?
Picoult kicked off by reading the start of the book, introducing the audience (the huge majority of whom wouldn’t have read the book yet) to Ruth, one of three storytellers that take the reader on a journey through Small Great Things. Ruth is a nurse in America, and Ruth is black. Something that two new parents won’t tolerate and so ask that she has no involvement with their care. This causes events to spiral in ways that none dreamed possible, but we follow Ruth as she fights for her job and then her freedom as a result of what happened that day.
When I read Small Great Things I was struck by how much research Picoult had clearly done in order to write the book, her terminology around Ruth’s job was spot on, she obviously knew her stuff. But hearing her talk yesterday about the research that she did totally blew me away.
She was very aware that as a white woman she did not understand what people of colour go through. I say people of colour as that is the term that Picoult uses, it is the current term that is used in America and apparently preferred by many as it includes not just black people but also latinos, Asians and anyone with a skin colour that is not considered white.
So knowing this Picoult set about doing her research. She spent 100 hours with ten black women, talking to them extensively about their lives and their experiences and prejudices that they had encountered in their lives. What she heard shocked her, and she says, changed her forever. Two of these women then read the book as she wrote it to make sure that her terminology was ok and that Ruth’s voice sounded authentic.
Picoult also did a course in Social Justice, she told us that after every lesson she would come out and cry. Her eyes were opened and she felt inspired to write Small Great Things.
The idea for the book came from a newspaper story about a labour and delivery nurse in America who was told that she was not to care for a family who were white supremacists. That nurse went on the sue her hospital for discrimination but Picoult decided to take the story further, in that what if something went wrong with the baby and the black nurse had been the only one present, torn between helping the baby or obeying her orders not to touch it?
In order to complete her research Picoult also met with two ex-white supremacists, to find out about their thinking and their lives. The stories that she told us about what they had told her were shocking and scary, especially given what is happening in the US right now.
When I read Small Great Things I often wondered what black women would think of it, and in fact, I pondered this in my review. So I was pleased to hear Picoult talk about this, she said that the response had been amazingly positive, that she had had fantastic feedback from people of colour. When an audience member asked Picoult what the reaction had been from white supremacists, Picoult smiled and told us that they were not going to be reading her book in the first place. But she had written an article for TIME magazine about her book and had received a number of highly offensive and threatening tweets on Twitter. I have just looked at that article for the first time and it repeats a lot of what I have written here, but no doubt in a far more eloquent way.
Before we went into the hall I got talking to a woman behind me in the queue, she was a black woman and had at the last minute decided to go and listen to Picoult talk. When it was finished we saw each other on the way out and she told me that it had been amazing, she was so pleased that she had gone, that it had been powerful and how, as a nurse in the NHS she felt that she had been passed over for promotions, and had felt that she had been treated differently because of her skin colour many times. This book really is so relevant today in this world. This book needs to be read, now more than ever.