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CLE Novelist Thrity Umrigar Tackles Race, Class & Power

Thrity Umrigar (Robert Muller)

Thrity Umrigar latest novel,  Everybody's Son, tells the story of nine-year-old Anton, a mixed-race boy, who escapes an at-risk life with a crack-addicted mother when he is adopted by a wealthy east coast politician.  But, as Anton grows into an adult with his own political aspirations he struggles with personal identity issues.  Umrigar starts her story with a lyric from American-balladeer Bruce Springsteen, which capsulizes Anton's dilemma:

God have mercy on the man who doubts what he’s sure of-  from the song "Brilliant Disguise"

“Those two lines from Springsteen’s song just seem to me to capture the essence of who Anton is,” says Umrigar.  “To me, this book, more than anything else, is about Anton’s journey from a state of confusion to a sense of cohesion.”

Umrigar feels her training as a print journalist at the Akron Beacon Journal prepared her to write this book, which explores the lives of several social classes.

“One day I could be interviewing the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and the next day I might be knocking on the door of someone who was addicted to drugs.”

Some of the issues that her characters face seem to be ripped straight from the headlines.  Umrigar notes that the book was written during the waning years of the Obama administration, when social movements like “Black Lives Matter” were very much in the news.  

“Clearly, to be a writer is to be a sponge,” Umrigar says. “You're sort of subconsciously absorbing these currents that are flowing all around you.”

But, does an Indian-American writer have the cultural sensitivity to write in the voices of a poor African American boy or a well-to-do white politician?  Umrigar suggests asking a different question:

“Did I get it right portraying characters who don't bear a physical resemblance to me or a class or racial resemblance to me?”

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.