Bookable“I took all the guard rails off and let the language be what kids spoke and let the racism be what it was.”Photo courtesy of Bookable
We are all products of our environment. Who we are, and who we become in the world, is shaped by the places we were raised. In Shawn Stewart Ruff’s debut novel Finlater, a Cincinatti housing project takes center stage, acting as a springboard for every aspect of protagonist Cliffy Douglass’s young life. The book is fiction but draws closely from Ruff’s own childhood growing up Black in the 1970s. Moving and memorable, Finlater explores the overt racism that still plagues America. With a probing eye and tender touch Amanda explores Ruff’s world in this secret coming-of-age classic about changing demographics, interracial friendship, sexual orientation, and first love.
Photo courtesy of Bookable
Shawn Stewart Ruff is author of the novels GJS II (2016), Toss and Whirl and Pass (2010), Finlater (2008), winner of a Lambda Literary Award for Debut Fiction; and the novella One/10th (2013), the first of ten small entwined works inspired by W. E. B. DuBois’ The Talented Tenth. He is also the editor of the landmark anthology Go the Way Your Blood Beats (1996).
Below is a slightly edited transcript of a conversation Shawn had with Bookable Podcast host Amanda Stern. You can listen to Bookable on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
On today’s show…We’re going home again. We are all products of our environment. Who we are, and who we become in the world, is shaped by the place we were raised. Because when you’re smaller, the neighborhood you live in is your whole world.
Well our guest today explores that childhood experience with authenticity, nuance, and humor.
Time for an introduction!
I’m Shawn Stewart Ruff, author of Finlater
Shawn Stewart Ruff!
Finlater is his debut novel, first published in 2008. While it is fiction, the book draws closely from Shawn’s personal experiences growing up as a black boy in the nineteen-seventies, in the shadow of segregation.
It covers so much ground, exploring overt racism, interracial friendships, changing demographics, sexual orientation, and first loves.
I think it’s fair to say it’s an attempt to capture the character of my childhood.
The story is so deeply rooted in location you could practically call it a main character.
Well, the setting is in a housing project in eastern Cincinnati called Finlater.
Finlater began as a WPA project created by President Roosevelt for poor white people. By Shawn’s childhood. those demographics changed considerably, bringing in more and more black families.
You know, despite the grumbling of especially the white people living in this housing complex, the children of course all got along wonderfully. I mean we had friends we raced to school with and hung out with and they were white kids living in the neighborhood, and they were just as poor as we were.
That fellowship didn’t last long.
There’s a kind of violence, barely controlled, as this novel begins. It escalates in tension in all kinds of ways and in fact every way. So I think that part of the reason why I chose this particular period in my life, because it represents something that I think about this country, that it’s a terribly violent country in all kinds of ways.
So this is where I begin this novel and those were the stakes for me, how to sort of get into that theme of conflict, tension, and violence. That interested me so much in conveying this story.
From Finlater, pg. 24
“It was mostly moms and their kids in Finlater. Dads were in short supply, and seasonal like the holidays. Having a man around carried weight and earned respect. Nice white women like Mrs. Kavanaugh congratulated Mom on Dad in wordless ways, a sponge cake or a tin of cookies arriving for no good reason.”
Cliffy Douglas lives in Finlater with his family. Can you tell us a bit about who Cliffy Douglas is?
Well, he is an eighth grader, who has been bumped up a grade after having been discovered by a new administrator at the school who sort of basically plucks Cliffy out of a dance class where the black kids were basically corralled.
And so, he is 13 going on 14 in this novel. And he comes from a family of a mother and two brothers at that point. And the novel begins with the introduction of the fifth person. So, there are five principles in this story. The fifth person is basically a no-account kind of dad, the no-show dad, the deadbeat dad, and he has basically sort of come into town, swooped into town for lots of reasons that have little to nothing to do with the children and the wife he left behind, but basically money. I mean, that’s the reason he comes to town.
And so, he disrupts what was, I think a pretty well-adjusted and happy childhood for all the boys for Dudley, Corey and Cliffy. So, Cliffy isn’t just the only one who has this sort of standout experience with this invasion because that’s what he thinks of it is and not in the very beginning, I mean, that’s what it ultimately begins to feel like that they have been invaded, taken over by this force that none of them have any power over, including their mother, who is not at all shy to let everybody know just how much he loves this man.
She’s only loved him. And the children have never seen her like this. Cliffy has never seen this mother like this. There is a man in the background. You never meet him in the novel, but Cliffy references him because this man is the kind of man that Cliffy thinks would have been a great father because he was caring and loving, and he had money. And he meant well. He meant to sort of see the boys through. I mean, that was how he kind of viewed his relationship with this much, much younger woman. He was an older man. So, there’s a bit of betrayal that’s sort of laid out early on in this novel, that Cliffy doesn’t really quite understand until he gets to know this person who is his father.
From Finlater, pg. 143
“Dad greeted us with the news that Mom was working extra. He usually never bothered to tell us what instructions she gave him for us. He had been on his way for a snack, and we just happened to be there. He was in his usual getup of tight bikini underwear that scrunched his privates into a tomato-like ball. The imitation silk tank top, red in this case, mashed his nipples.”
The boys refer to their dad as Bikini Dad, which is funny, but it’s also not so funny. He’s very unsettling in a lot of ways. Can you talk a bit about why they call him Bikini Dad and what he does in the house, how he lounges around and how he takes up space in the house?
Yes, he kind of dominates the space. He basically turns the boys into servants. He runs around in bikini underwear or underwear and t-shirts, sometimes no t-shirt. He has clearly no idea about raising children or anything. There’s at one point I think I kind of gloss over this description, but it’s the father going out to play with the boys and he went out in platform shoes and they’re playing toss or something. And the father was a couple of times and it’s like fuck this. And he goes back into the house immediately. So, he has no connection to the boys as boys or fathering boys or bothering any kind of child. I mean, he’s just a kind of a child.
I mean, I think that the German white lady calls him a man child, and that’s exactly who he is. So, in the story, he really sort of provokes the boys. The younger boy is just so in love with his dad, the dad that is promising to take into amusement parks and all this, but he does not care that he’s been turned into a fetch it boy. Cliffy is very suspicious of this.
And the other boy is obviously just really worked up over it, but almost incapable of resisting early on, because in a way, they’re all trying to make their mother happy. Their mother, their big sister/mother, they want her to be happy. She tells them that she’s tired of carrying the weight of all this on her shoulders. She needs their father specifically to help raise them, to turn them into good young men. But she has clearly fooled herself into thinking that’s possible with such a man because he is the opposite of what a good father is.
So, I mean, clearly, Cliffy has a fantasy that he’s projecting about his own father. And it isn’t the person who showed up. He’s definitely not Bikini Dad. It’s a completely different kind of man, a noble man, a man like the man who the mother was seeing before the father showed up.
Most coming of age stories include first love, and Finlater is no exception. Cliffy falls hard for his — despite it being taboo at the time.
So, this story is a gay story, largely because I felt that gay people would embody everything to make this story come to life in a really, really big way. And the characters themselves not only had to be gay, but they had to be different from each other, fascinated with each other, and ultimately fall in love with each other.
So, that’s where Noah comes from. He comes from a similar kind of outsider experience. And the difference I think between the two of them is that Noah is unafraid to proclaim who he is. He insists upon letting people know that he’s Jewish and that he does not celebrate Christmas and a whole lot of things, a very opinionated boy.
And Cliffy is this kind of very, very smart, but a very shrinking kind of person. He is a middle child, used to negotiating complicated family dynamics. It’s what middle children do. So, he doesn’t really have that sense of standing up the way that Noah does. So, you can imagine the instant attraction between the two of them.
Cliffy is a bit in awe and I think Noah sees something similar in Cliffy in the sense that the boy, Cliffy, obviously has been put down. Noah first learns about Cliffy when Cliffy has been plucked out of the dance class. So, it would only make sense then that he would understand that they shared something.
When they meet, they meet because they’re both wearing the same shirt, which is so perfect. I mean, that’s exactly how 13-year-old people bond over this shared superficialities. And there’s more to it though. His father owns a clothing store and so, Cliffy perhaps bought his shirt there, but he didn’t. But Noah immediately calls Cliffy his soul brother.
Where was he getting that term from? And I wondered whether he was sort of fetishizing Cliffy’s blackness?
Yeah, in a way, I think so. There’s a handshake moment where Cliffy sort of is expected to know something, some kind of cool coded black guy handshake, and he’s a little confused by that. No, no, you’re totally right. I mean, I think that sort of is the, if you will, the flirtation.
And of course, Cliffy doesn’t really understand what’s happening at that point. But that is the initial flirtation, the sense that we belong together. We are brothers, whatever that means, soul brothers, I mean, whatever that means. Black guys use, well back then, we would say that. Well, I didn’t say it. And I don’t think my brothers did either. But this would be a phrase that you would hear in movies and so on.
So, I think Noah in lots of ways was very enamored of black culture. And you learn later in the story that Noah’s father was as well. He has the store that you mentioned and the people shopping there are black mostly. So, it’s a very sort of catered type of clothing in the store to a certain type of men looking for a certain type of style. But it’s also this place where musicians pop in.
And the father, Noah’s father that is, was a musician before his injuries in Vietnam, and so he loves these people and talks music with them and has this really strong bond with people from the area, which is the reason he holds on to the store. The store has no significance otherwise, because it obviously isn’t profitable. I mean, you learn that as well.
So, I think I wouldn’t say that Cliffy is an object of fetish. I just think that Noah has a romance in his mind that he can have a black friend like his father had so many black friends. And Noah met many of these black people who would come into the store in summer when he worked there with his father.
So, there’s a kind of history there that I think Noah feels himself very much a part of. So, it isn’t really for him, I think, a fetishizing. I think for us as reader, it may come off that way. But of course, we’re also reading that book by today’s standards, which arguably is a bit unfair. I mean it’s so hard to sort of suspend all of our judgments and biases and wokeness now and appreciate something for just simply what it is and the context in which it occurred. But that’s the fact here, you know?
From Finlater, pg. 77
“Fuck dang,” Noah spat. He swerved the bike sharply and we nearly capsized.
“What’s happening?” I shouted into his back.
“Nothing, just a wrong turn.”Then I heard: “Look, the Jew boy got his spook with him, too.”
One of the posse called out something to the others. Just then, the four of them broke away from the group and pursued us on foot. A coke bottle whizzed by us and shattered against a parked car.
“Fuck you!” Noah screamed.
I saw Larry Clark’s, Kids, the film that he made with Harmony Korine. And I just totally understood my story after watching that film, or my story as in my novel, not my personal story, but as in like what my novel, where my novel would go.
So, I took all the guardrails off and let the language be what kids spoke, let the racism just sort of be what it was, as was the case in those times. It was nothing for your friends to hear your parents … Or I’m sorry, to hear your friend’s parents say, “I don’t want that neighbor in this house,” that kind of thing. This is the kind of experience that we kids had in these in this housing project. So, I just took it off, or rather, I let it speak for itself.
And the way that we would normally sort of construct a book like that now, it would be almost neutered of all of this. And that just was not possible. And again, this is why I struggled to figure out how to write this book. And I saw that film and I thought, that’s how to write this book, take the guard rails off, just let it go, and let it go where it needs to go.
And I didn’t add this into the interview questions, but I do, I’m very curious, what were you afraid of when you were writing this?
Well, I always feel just a little sort of squeamish and cringe a bit when I read very, very personal type of writing that is about parents alive, siblings alive, lovers alive or something like that. It just makes me feel a little uncomfortable. I mean, I’m thrilled for the writers who can do that. I’m just simply saying that for me, that’s really sort of an impossible task to take on.
So, I think my tendencies are more toward obscuring the things which are definitely me and only I know those things. And the rest is behind the wall of fiction. So, I think these books or this book, well, I’ve just written a follow-up to Finlater after all these years, so I want to say that these books have liberated me a little bit in that regard. I mean, there’s still I consider to be very much fiction, but they strayed and rely heavily upon my own life, again in character, less sort of chronological events and the rest, but most definitely character.
Shawn Stewart Ruff, author of Finlater. It’s published by Quote Editions and is celebrating its 12th anniversary this year.
And did you catch that little tease buried in his last answer??! That’s right — Shawn is working on a follow-up to Finlater and we cannot wait to read it.
Bookable is a production of Loud Tree Media. I’m your host Amanda Stern, five feet tall — and still making short jokes.
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And since Shawn is writing a follow-up about Cliffy and Noah, it was probably a good thing we had this chat to refresh his memory. There were a few details I had to remind him of…
Is that two or three or four? I’m confused here, four.
It’s the fifth. No, the fifth…
Sorry. Thank you for correcting me.
I don’t count very well.
I just read it. Well, you wrote this a very long time ago. I just finished it.
Well honestly, I had to read it too because I don’t really remember it. I’ve written so much since then.
This… is Bookable.
Read more: writingcooperative.com