“There are things being done on a global scale in my name as an American. it’s a tricky position to be in because, as a black American, it feels like those same things are being done to black people in this country.”
Threats to Colonialism:
A Mind Expanded by Travel
I met Lauren Wilkinson when we were both MFA students in fiction at Columbia University. Her poise and thoughtfulness were immediately apparent; then, she published a short story, “Safety Catch,” in Granta, and I had the opportunity to read her work and be deeply impressed by her talent. Lauren was so deftly able to increase narrative tension through several decades and geographic locations while also creating empathy for her protagonist, Marie Mitchell, a young woman of color working in the FBI during the 1980s. American Spy (Penguin Random House) is her first novel and an expansion of that story: Marie is consistently overlooked within the bureau for promotion because of her race and gender. She finally gets an opportunity for advancement when she’s asked to join a secret CIA task force to undermine Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary president of Burkina Faso. As she falls in love with her target, Marie begins to question both the reasons for the U.S. government’s interference there as well as her own values. Sankara is a remarkably progressive leader striving to improve education, housing, and health care for his people. He is also a strong advocate for women’s rights. His example is a strong contrast to the closed-minded bureaucracy of her job. Why should she continue to work within a system—and a society—that does not recognize her worth?
Marie often debriefs her informants at diners. She’s found that the act of having a seemingly casual conversation in plain sight is a decent security measure. Lauren and I decided to have lunch at Veselka, a diner in the East Village, as a nod to this practice of Marie’s. Playing back the recording of our lunch, during which we discussed topics such as the extent to which American citizens are complicit in their government’s influence abroad, I can hear the clatter of utensils and plates, the murmuring of other patrons in the background. I wonder what other potential conversations are also ostensibly being recorded in plain sight.
I. An Illusion
THE BELIEVER: One of the aspects of your novel that I thought was so impressive is the transitions it makes in time and space. They feel so effortless. How was it like to blend all those locations together? I know when we were setting up the interview, you mentioned that your mother helped you conceptualize New York in the 1980s. Maybe that’s a good place to start, though there’s also Burkina Faso, of course, and Martinique as well.
LAUREN WILKINSON: That was actually by far the hardest part for me—getting the timeline right. I wrote this book several times, maybe a half-dozen. Because Sankara is such a beloved figure in Burkina Faso, it was also really important for me to go there and then to physically be in Martinique to write about it. The first time I wrote the novel, it was totally linear, but then she doesn’t spy until a third of the way into the book. So I just kept doing it over and over again. I love to hear it looks effortless, because it took me an incredible amount of effort.
I knew I wanted her to have a rich background; I didn’t want her to just be a spy who kind of pops out of nothing. I just ended up trying to be as direct as possible, going past-present-past-present, and then present for the rest of it.
BLVR: So you visited Burkina Faso?
LW: Yeah, about a year before I sold the book.
BLVR: I completely believed all the details. But when you went you were reconceiving it as a different time as well, when you were walking around the streets. What was that process like?
LW: Burkina is a very informal place, and I ended up meeting someone who was staying at a hostel I was staying in, who knew someone who had ran for president of the country and was in exile—there was an attempt on his life after the coup. There was also a biography I brought with me, and in the evenings I read this biography that was in French. It was really dense. So I’d rent a moped, and I would travel around and look at the city. I was introduced to a couple of people that way. I was really shy about speaking to them in French, but I tried. Then I tried to superimpose those people into the past and imagine what the country would feel like when they were being galvanized by this revolutionary figure.
BLVR: After I read your book, I Googled Thomas Sankara and watched a few of his speeches. He is incredibly handsome and charismatic. You mention in the book some of the progressive things he did, such as getting more than two million children vaccinated and him being very pro women’s rights, putting women in positions of power in his government.
LW: And in a very short time and when people just weren’t talking about it. Because I’m not Burkinabè, a question I’ve received is, “Why did I start writing about Sankara?” And it’s because I feel like it’s an oversight that he’s not better known outside of his country. The story of his life and his death are very interesting; there’s a real element of betrayal in his death, too.
BLVR: The general who brought him into power is the same man who staged his own coup later.
LW: And his closest friend.
BLVR: Do people still want to talk about Sankara and revere him there?
LW: When I went, Blaise Compaoré was actually still in power. He was in power for almost thirty years. He was recently ousted. But people, they love Thomas Sankara. Everyone I spoke to still has a lot of admiration for him and really mourn him. It feels like now that Compaoré is gone, there’s more of a push to find out exactly what happened. They’re trying to exhume Sankara’s body to find out if it’s actually him. The place where he died—they’re trying to get money together to place a memorial there.
BLVR: When I looked up Sankara and watched his speeches, he had one about debt and colonialism. He said, “Debt’s origins come from colonialism’s origins. Those who have lent us money are those who have colonized us before.” And you have this wonderful moment in the novel, and that’s when he and Marie are talking. Sankara sees a young man in a Converse t-shirt and says, “Why are you wearing that? We make our own clothes. That’s just free advertising for Converse.”
In these moments when she sees him outright reject things, I thought perhaps that made her growth as a character possible. I wondered what it was like to take that political language and incorporate it into the novel. The real story is about Marie’s evolution as character and realizing that working within the system is not the way she wants to live her life or protect her children.
LW: Once Marie starts to see the oppression in the United States as part of a larger global trend, I think she understands it better then and can reject it. She realizes it doesn’t serve her, no matter her own ambition in her job. The scales really fall off her eyes when she leaves the country and understands how much bigger these questions of power are. The idea that she may be fighting for someone else’s safety is an illusion. Fighting for American safety is an illusion when this country’s intentions in other countries are aggressive; they’re not in any way defensive, but on the offensive. It’s harder for everyone when you expand.
It’s hard to go back to thinking the way you did before you had that context. That’s a theme in the book, too. Marie’s father leaves: he fights in the war and comes back. And then he has to sit at the back of the bus. That really happened to my grandfather, and I can’t imagine being expanded by travel and then coming back and feeling, “This is so small and yet so dangerous.” How petty that must seem after you risk your life at the other side of the world. That’s maybe the expression of it for her, that she feels torn. Everyone is kind of torn. Obviously, no one thinks that they’re a bad person in this book. Everyone thinks they’re doing the best that they can or should do.
II. The Highest Form
BLVR: You studied with Deborah Eisenberg, yes?
BLVR: I read the New York Times profile of her, and she described how, when she and Wallace Shawn left the country and saw other countries, and how the U.S. government was intervening in other places, there was a sense of, “How complicit am I in my country’s exploitation of others?”
LW: That’s a big question for Marie in this book, as it’s a question for me. I ask myself that all the time, because there are things being done on a global scale in my name as an American. It’s a tricky position to be in because, as a black American, it feels like those same things are being done to black people in this country. It’s complicated, and I do feel complicit and resent it. I feel both that I benefit from this complicity and then I’m oppressed by it. That’s one of the complicated things of the American legacy. I talk a lot about colonialism and neocolonialism and imperialism. My family is here as an expression of colonialism and of capitalism. Imperialism is a high form of capitalism, the highest form. What a strange legacy, to have both going in and going out. To be here as a product of it, and to have terrible things done in my name as a product of it. It’s a big idea.
BLVR: I see that when Marie goes to Burkina Faso. In America, she’s seen as black first. And in Burkina Faso, she’s seen as an American first.
LW: That definitely happened to me. People immediately understood me to be foreign, just by looking at me. And they referred to me as “the American.” I’m not thought of as an archetypal American; when we’re “Making America Great Again,” it’s not for me. But in this other context, I am that. I am the American. That’s the first thing that people saw in me. It was surprising for me.
BLVR: Marie is clearly extremely intelligent, but she’s overlooked at the FBI. She’s not allowed to advance.
LW: She’s smarter than me, which is hard. [Laughs.] She’s much smarter than I am. I guess the trick there was, you know, I get to choose the things that make her look smart. When you condense someone into their smartest moments, they can look smarter than you as the writer. I don’t include the times when she said something stupid to a colleague.
BLVR: That is nice, filtering your character’s experience of the world.
LW: It’s a trick. It’s an interesting sleight-of-hand.
BLVR: So she’s amazingly intelligent, scores the highest on her exams. But then she’s passed over for reasons of her color and her gender. Yet she knows how smart she is. She says, “It’s really hard to deceive me, it’s really hard to manipulate me.” Without giving away too much, we see another character, her contact at the CIA, Ed Ross, sort of use her being passed over in order to manipulate her into following Sankara and participating in the plan to undermine his authority in Burkina Faso.
I was ignorant of all this, until the end when it’s clearer how he was leading her along the way. It’s not exactly a kind of dramatic irony, it’s more like, writing self-discovery, writing something you have to note she’s not aware of. I was wondering how you went about creating that.
LW: The way I started thinking of it is that Ross is almost able to weaponize her intelligence. What it started with was my awareness that in another world, they would have been friends, if they didn’t have this one thing not in common. They’re similar kind of people, and they would have liked each other. I think he’s as smart as her, and he can take advantage of that. Someone who’s really intelligent and confident about it trusts their intelligence over anything, but that can also be a blind spot, when you’re so convinced of your perception of things. I think that is how he destabilizes her. I also used her sister as a blind spot. Because her reaction to her sister is emotional, and she can’t interpret a lot of things that her sister does or has done. She’s so used to relying on her intellect, but those are emotional things. I thought, those are the blind spots she would have, then I got the characters to work within them to trick her, to sincerely trick her. It’s weird because I felt like, Ross is doing this to her and also I am doing this to her. She started to feel like a separate person to me, which is very interesting. How do I trick her? That is how I came to it.
BLVR: Maybe that’s a good way to talk about Marie’s relationships with women in the book, particularly her sister and her mother. But they’re sort of relationships with their absences because her sister is deceased and her mother left them as kids. She doesn’t have that support of women as she’s going through all this. The men in the book are present very front and center, but I felt the pain of the loss of the women in her life underneath that.
LW: And those are fundamental losses to me, the most important ones, the reason why she was closed to more loss and conducts her life the way that she does. She’s lonely, and her loneliness makes her vulnerable. The sad thing that I did to her is that loss is her biggest fear and yet it keeps happening. And at the end, she’s creating it with her own children.
BLVR: That, to me, was one of the most extraordinarily sad things in the book, that what happened to her might be happening again. That if she had been able to have that female support, then maybe that some of the things that happened to her would not have happened.
LW: It’s kind of coded in, she misses these women more than she can even articulate, more than even she really understands. And you’re right, about how much that loss is super present in her life. I wanted her relationships with women to be defining, even though there’s a romance in the book. It was important to me, as a writer, for her to really miss women, for that to be primary and how her personality develops.
BLVR: There’s a wonderful moment, in one of her first meetings with Ed Ross. He’s trying to get her on board to deceive Sankara, and Ross says, “Oh, and Sankara is a great believer in women and advancing women in power” and she says, “And what a thing to try and use against him.”
LW: I feel that could be treated like a weakness, that empathy and understanding of the need to see value in women in society, in any society. I feel like that was universal, that this group of men would see weakness in empathy.
BLVR: The framing device of her writing this to her sons is really moving.
LW: I stole it from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. That book is so intimate, and I was having problems with intimacy in the third person with her. Because she is a spy, who is she going to be honest with? Her whole life has been about her ability to keep a secret. She also has a very aloof presence because she’s frightened about getting close to a lot of people, so who would she be close to? Her children. And that’s where that came from. I was able to get closer to her and get her to be honest with that. Because those are the two people she’d be closest to.
III. Spying on the Imaginary
BLVR: What other books or writers helped you or inspired you?
LW: John Le Carré. Graham Greene. I had a kind of anti-response to James Bond and Ian Fleming. I was like, this is just so sexist and a bit of a crazy conception of a spy: someone who is supposed to be covert and is in the business of gathering intelligence. Now you’re playing a flashy game of cards? And then definitely Invisible Man. I felt Passing was very influential. I read a bunch of nonfiction, too, about working in the FBI and CIA.
BLVR: I was going to ask about the FBI and CIA stuff, the research that needed to be done.
LW: I read a book that was published in the ’80s about the FBI. The writing was so bro-ey. For every woman, a lot of attention was given to her appearance. I felt like I was not reading the book in the way that the author intended for it to be read; I was really aware of the women being described as “leggy” or whatever. And then I read a book by a female CIA operative, called Blowing My Cover by Lindsay Moran. She was an officer in the 2000s. She definitely presented it as being very bureaucratic, and that made sense to me. And she was pretty forthright about the way that sexism was just a part of her job. So I got a sense that it was probably much worse twenty years earlier.
BLVR: Does it feel like in these interviews that you’re sort of reporting or spying on your own book?
LW: Sometimes I feel like I’m spying a little bit on Marie. I almost felt like I had this perfect film of someone else, or seeing pictures of them or photographing them, and the book was me figuring out what parts of their life I wanted to put down on paper. I did, while I was writing, feel like I was spying on this person that I had made up. I was having emotional reactions to her, so that made her feel real to me—even though I know that she’s not. I would get annoyed with her, but then that would make her feel alive. Like I was spying on someone.