The title of Mathea Morais’ book, “There You Are,” could have multiple connotations — an expression of someone having found you, or self-recognition of this is where you find yourself, as in wherever you go, there you are. Regardless, the issue of identity, how we are seen by others and how we see ourselves, runs throughout the book, and in this case, all within the prism of racism. Morais is the director of the Noepe Center for Literary Arts, housed at Featherstone. She also taught creative writing to children and young adults for more than a decade.
The book primarily revolves around the lives of a number of black teenagers, white teenagers, and a few adults, and the strife they experience because of the color of their skin living in St. Louis during the 1980s, the city where Morais grew up. “The characters in my book are black and white kids living in and relating to one another within a system that was built to advantage white people over black people,” Morais says, “and each of them is dealing with how this affects their lives. Placing these characters … in one of the most historically segregated and racist cities in the country and showing the trajectory from the ’80s up until the murder of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson allowed me to reflect on my own experiences growing up in that city, but also to show that the white supremacist system that allowed Michael Brown to be murdered, and Darren Wilson to be acquitted of that murder, has been in place forever.”
Morais makes these issues personal through her vivid characters: Octavian,who is African American, his friends, his father, and perhaps most important, his brother Francis. Their mother’s death from cancer when they were children irrevocably changes their lives. It is the catalyst for Octavian’s lifelong debilitating panic attacks, and tears apart his relationship with Francis, who himself spirals into endless drug addiction.
As a result, Francis swings from wildly loving to heartbreakingly hostile. Yet because of their undying love for him, Octavian’s and his father’s lives revolve around this troubled son’s downward spiral. Morais writes Octavian ruminating, “Wasn’t it always Frankie? Had he ever had a problem that he couldn’t follow back, like a lifeline, to Francis?” Later, when speaking with Mina, his white girlfriend, Octavian shares, “’I know it sounds crazy, but before I can even know what I, Octavian, want, I have to be sure that Francis is going to be all right first.” Ultimately, Francis’ unraveling life is the driving force in the story.
Mina has her own identity crisis, wishing since childhood with all her heart that she was black, and despairs of the tension being white creates in her and Octavian’s relationship. Mina asks Clarissa, her best friend and a woman of color, if she thinks Mina understands what it’s like to be black. Morais writes, “Don’t get me wrong, you’re crazy down, Mina, but you’ll never know what the world looks like through eyes that aren’t white, just like I won’t know what the world looks like through eyes that aren’t black.”
The novel’s catalyst is a homecoming for all the characters, the main and tangential ones, to Rahsaan’s Records, which had been a melting pot of music — funk, reggae, rock, R & B, classical, jazz, and pop — during the young people’s lives. Its owner, Bones, is about to close the store since it’s no longer financially viable. Morais skillfully uses music throughout to create fine-tuned nuances in her scenes.
She often does this through Bones, a super “cool” white dude with an uncanny talent in connecting people to one another through music. Talking to Octavian’s father about the old days and why he’s closing, Bones says, “I don’t have what it takes anymore. Things have changed too much. Back in the day, I had … white kids from out in Ladue coming in looking for Coltrane, and black kids from the North Side wanting to get their hands on some Steely Dan …
“Tell you what, though, it wasn’t cause those kids were looking to break down racial barriers … that they was up in here. It was because of the music … I used to have my finger on their pulse, on every single one of those kids … I knew what they needed to hear, knew what song would heal whatever wound they were nursing. And then, when they started talking to each other — sharing songs, trading albums? That was God’s work right there. But today? Nah.”
Morais, who hung out in a record store when she was young, said, “I realized the only way I was going to be able to include music in the story was to make music a character itself, and include it in everything. Since St. Louis has always been a music town, and since music really was part of everything I experienced there, this seemed like something I could do in telling this particular story … Music can create conversation — for instance, when two very different people really love the same song — that can create understanding and empathy in ways that not much else can.”
“There You Are” is at once specific to a time and place, and yet, Morais says, “I want readers to find themselves, or people they know, or songs that they love, or ways that they’ve felt — for better or worse — in the book.”
“There You Are” by Mathea Morais. Amberjack Publishing. Available at Bunch of Grapes, Main Street, Vineyard Haven for $24.99.
A book launch party, complete with a DJ, will take place at Featherstone on Saturday, Nov. 2, from 5:30 to 7 pm. Morais invites people to come dressed as their favorite musical icon or in a favorite band T shirt. She will also appear at the West Tisbury library at 3 pm on Sunday, Nov. 17, and at the Chilmark library at 1 pm on Saturday, Nov. 23.