In the opening scene, Avery is lying in the grass by the Golden Gate bridge. As someone from New England, the specter of ticks is always on my mind when I think about laying myself down in the grass. Do you ever find your memories of hiking and exploring Central Massachusetts superimpose themselves over your outdoor life in California?
This is such a funny question! I should probably be thinking about ticks more, since growing up in Massachusetts it really is drilled into your head that you shouldn’t let any part of nature touch your bare skin ever or you will get bitten by a deer tick and contract Lyme disease. But I have become luxuriously lax about it. I personally just love lying in the grass so much, having bare feet in the grass. I tend to be much more afraid of spiders latching onto my clothes or climbing into my hair than ticks, because spiders are horrifying and truly evil. In any case, Avery isn’t from Massachusetts, so I doubt she was thinking about ticks at all.
The vote on preserving Alcatraz as a relic, the reasons behind the rejection, and the votes of the formerly incarcerated seem to echo how the U.S. views its present day and its history through a filter of white supremacy. Can you talk about how your work on the impact of the incarceration of loved ones of Black women has informed your writing?
Okay, this is going to be a long answer because I worked on anti-incarceration legislation in California for four years, and I have a lot of strong opinions!
It is just a fact of the criminal system in the U.S. that, while there are many people fighting tooth and nail to make the criminal justice system less abhorrent, there are many people who must still be convinced of the basic reality that incarcerated people are people. And yet the biggest problem isn’t really that there are too few of the first kind, and too many of the second, psychopathic, kind. The biggest problem is that the question of “what to do about incarceration” is mostly (not entirely, see below for some examples) answered by decision-making bodies that explicitly exclude incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. There is very little hope for justice when decisions concerning one group of people are made by people who categorically have power over those people.
I wanted to capture some of this in the conversation about “what to do about Alcatraz,” where it is actually fairly ambiguous what anyone is talking about at any given time, because the fulcrum of the conversation is this unstated question: are the cement-block aliens persons in any legal or moral sense of the word? And that question somehow is never explicitly articulated. First because people feel empowered to make decisions based off of their own silent conclusions, and second because, well, the aliens weren’t exactly invited to the convening. I hope I was somewhat successful in this.
As a queer Black woman, I will always be confounded by people with and without power regularly and confidently making decisions based on their silent conclusions to that terrible, unarticulated question. Are Black people persons? Are trans people? Queer people? Indigenous people? People who are not U.S. citizens?
The results of these decisions are always catastrophic (see, e.g., Indigenous genocide, slavery, incarceration and detention, police shootings, preferring to let trans kids die rather than allowing them access to meds . . .). It’s more than a failure of empathy. It’s a pathological distortion of the imagination that I think, lies at the heart of white supremacy. This inability to imagine that a white, cis, heterosexual, able-bodied, male concept of the Self does not form the basis of personhood.
If anyone would like to learn more about organizations led by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people or their family members, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, The Transgender, Gender-Variant, and Intersex Justice Project, Essie Justice Group, Impact Justice, and Dignity and Power Now (all organizations in California) are great places to start.
Can you talk about why you chose the ending you did?
I am a sucker for a hopeful ending. I may be a mediocre-to-terrible organizer myself, but I believe very deeply in the power of organizing, activism, and collective movement to change the world, which is not a pie in the sky statement. It means changing laws, policies, practices, and individual behavior—and there are literal step-by-step instructions for how to do all of these things! But it does require decades (and centuries?) of sustained effort and faith, which can be very hard to keep up while also just trying to eat, and sleep, and work, and maybe love and have fun. But it’s not impossible, and I don’t think it’s utopic. The story ends the way it does because I want to uplift this aspect of humanity: that there will always be people who fight in some way or another for a more just world.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about “Do Nothing”?
Yes! The title comes from one of my all-time favorite songs, “Do Nothing,” by the Specials, a 2Tone ska band from England that were very popular in the ’70s-’80s. Like a lot of the mostly white, but sometimes mixed (white working class and West Indian communities were all rubbing up against each other around then) ska/punk bands at the time, The Specials wrote a lot of songs grappling with poverty and hopelessness, having to choose between conforming to a social order that seemed to promise a bleak future, or rebellion. I really connected with these songs when I was a teenager, feeling desperate about my own future and in need of a narrative to make my palpable difference feel meaningful. Layered atop the hopelessness there is an edginess and defiance, the sense that “Well, if we’re fucked we might as well be ourselves.” Might as well etch out a new future—but probably in a little bit of a conflicted and dreamy and indulgently lazy way. I still love this song, and I started writing this story (which was pretty different in its early drafts) to try to capture a little bit of its spirit.
What’s the best fan feedback you’ve ever gotten on your writing?
Oh definitely from my parents. Anytime I publish literally anything, they’re just so proud of me. It doesn’t have to be very good, even.
Spread the word!