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New Novel 'Truth Like Oil' Explores Race, Single Parenting And The Meaning Of Home

 "Truth Like Oil" by Connie Biewald (Courtesy)
"Truth Like Oil" by Connie Biewald (Courtesy)

Graduation season can induce many emotions.

Anxiety about the unknown doesn’t just impact bright-eyed seniors. Worry can wash over the parents of the child who suddenly veers off the path in the wrong direction, affecting their opportunity at receiving a diploma.

Author Connie Biewald tells one such story in which a Black teen, the son of a Haitian immigrant, battles with his own demons as the prospects of walking across the stage on commencement day get smaller and smaller.

Set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, single mom and certified nursing assistant Nadine Antoine continuously clutches her stomach as one son rebels, and the other — the well-behaved child — also struggles behind the scenes.

Biewald’s “Truth Like Oil” is a novel that touches on race, fitting in, the power of truth and the weight of shame. It’s also a story of immigration as the boys’ single mother labors to work and parent in a county where she feels she’s lost control of her destiny.

Interview Highlights

On her idea for the book

“When I started writing this book, it was about the power differential and racism involved in elderly, privileged white people being cared for so often by people of color and what that power dynamic was about. … Then I started to experience a lot of things with my own high school and college-age kids, and they are white and I’m white. They hung out with a lot of kids of color and specifically some Haitian kids. I had already gone to Haiti because Nadene, the character, the CNA, at that point was whispering in my ear intensely and I wanted to know where she came from.

“So I went to Haiti, came back, and my younger son was making not the best choices in high school and [I was] sitting with him in court and such. I mean, there we are in Cambridge where there’s a lot of white people there in that courtroom. I think the day I sat there all day with him, we were the only white people except for the people who were lawyers and the judge. I already felt powerless and terrified and didn’t sleep for a year. And I just wondered what it would be like to negotiate that as the parents of some of the kids he was hanging out with, who didn’t speak English, were working two and three jobs and didn’t have the privilege and power that I had from being a white person.”

On how her sons’ experiences informed her story

“I mean, I feel like if you’re going to write about people that have a different experience from you, I think you really have to immerse yourself as much as possible in their reality and really try to put yourself in other people’s shoes. And my kids certainly helped with that. Going to Haiti really was a lot, too. It was so compelling and interesting. And I started to make these relationships and then that particular son went back with me the next time — the one who was kind of making the bad choices and still making the bad choices — went with me to Haiti because I was like, I don’t know what to do.”

On the pressures on young men

“ … I think the whole thing about being tough and tender is really hard. I remember my kids were part of that era of boys wearing their pants really low. And when I asked my kids about it, they said, you know, I said, ‘how do you keep your pants up?’ And they said, ‘Oh, you got to walk big.’ And that made me start to think a lot about just what that means to walk big and the pressure to walk big and how much pressure there is on boys. In fact, I wrote a little essay that talked about when it comes time to empty the mousetraps of the mouse bodies or there are still stereotypical things where perfectly strong feminist women I know still would expect the men if they have a man in their lives to do that job.”

On the proverb truth like oil

“Truth like oil always rises to the surface. And I love proverbs in any culture and then had to struggle a little bit with the idea of, you know, now there’s a lot of talk about essentializing cultures and especially being a white person, writing about another culture. I really was scared of risking essentialization.”

On essentialization — reducing people to certain characteristics like food — and writing about another culture as a white person

“[Essentialization is] not a full picture — reducing a culture to their proverbs and their food and you focus in on that and that’s all you say. And I believe I’ve done way more than that in this book. And truth like oil is one of the proverbs that heads one of the sections of the book. And that is a proverb that comes from so many cultures, and I love that. I love that it’s so universal.”

Book Excerpt: ‘Truth Like Oil’

By Connie Biewald


Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill Ryan. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.