Map courtesy of the Detroit Historical Society
I’m a country mouse, I need trees to live. I never thought I’d write an urban fantasy. I haven’t gone in much for the bare-midriff-plus-shotgun kind anyway—but I loved Wizard of the Pigeons, Brown Girl in the Ring, The Folk of the Air. Even Little, Big has some deeply urban magic in the middle of it. Those books were a huge influence on me. I just couldn’t imagine mustering the authenticity to write anything like them.
Thanks to the urban parks systems of Boston, Columbus and Detroit, I’ve survived on the outskirts of three cities. I’ve seen how cities can be magical. How they can be alternate worlds. The great complexity of human culture, concentrated and compounded by artifice and time, is the heart of their magic. But it’s too easy to poison that heart by othering. To a country mouse, the city is exotic, alien, full of unimaginable lives. Aliens, the trope assures us, can hide in the city in plain sight. Easiest to dupe, one assumes, is the suburban tourist.
I grew up in the outer-ring suburbs of Boston, looking away, to the woods, for magic. Yearning for the wilderness. But all roads lead to the city. Now I’ve been a drop in the bucket of gentrification. A drop in the flood. I’d like to think I made myself as much like that drop as I could, malleable, adapting to the shape of my surroundings. Not without heartache, I learned to get what I needed of nature from Boston’s wooded graveyards, edgelands, the Arboretum, and still pay attention to the human wonders, the Cuban torta shop, the Dominican grocery and the Irish pub all on the same block. But the way the city taught me to love it, to be in awe of its complexity, its unimaginability, didn’t teach me to make myself part of it.
I’ve been fascinated by the idea of what nature looks like to people who grow up without access to it. Exotic and alien, I presume. And I’ve tried to make magic out of that, to tell stories centering what the woods has to teach us about what’s wild in all of us. This is what I think speculative writing is for: instill something with awe, with the uncanny, and it’s harder to dismiss or to look away from. I’ve thought of it as what I have to offer, what I’m good at. To an extent, that process works the same way in the other direction, from the country to the city. But the values aren’t remotely the same.
Part of New Yorkers’ disdain for the people of Boston is about their presumption, thinking their experience of Boston is at all applicable to the exponentially more dense and diverse New York. No—no, that’s wrong, it’s Bostonians with the chip on their collective shoulder. New Yorkers could care less what we think of them. (I was born in Boston; I still think of it as my home city despite having lived on the edge of Detroit now for ten years.) The point is, we fetishize the city. It’s gritty, it’s real; grow up there and you’re ready for anything, or so you’re led to think growing up in the suburbs. Dominant culture encourages this, pushes on suburban white kids the metaphor of the urban as wilderness. You’re in the jungle, baby. You’re gonna die.
Brave the city as a teenager, return to regale your friends with tales of your adventures. Use the word “ghetto” as a pejorative without the slightest historical awareness. Driving on the Jamaicaway past Dorchester and Mattapan, roll up the windows and lock the doors. Never take the Orange Line south of Mass Ave.
This same phenomenon exists among Detroit’s suburbs, perhaps even starker because Boston is still majority-white, and Detroit hasn’t been for a long time. I’ve met people from Detroit suburbs who’ve gone their entire lives without setting foot in the city except for Tigers games and the Renaissance Center, a 70s-futuristic skyscraper mall that actualizes its isolation from the 80% Black, 36% poor city around it by suspending its curvilinear concrete galleries amid hundreds of feet of negative space.
I can’t feign access to a high horse about this, because see above about Boston, segregatedest city in America. But I can try to understand. I am allowed to try to figure out how to tell stories about this that encourage and hopefully help others do the same. It was living in Boston, ethnicities passing each other like ships in the night, that convinced me I needed to. It’s a responsibility for a writer working in an urban setting not their own to do that work, the same way it’s a responsibility to write the other with compassion and earnest attempt to understand, the same way it’s a responsibility for someone making a home in a new place to respect and learn the history and culture they’re trying to become a part of, to resist the colonizing and gentrifying inertial forces that come with privilege and wealth, to be a force for social justice. Especially now.
I wrote an aspirational novella, NIGHT ROLL, about how an individual instance of gentrifiying experience could possibly go okay. It’s no coincidence that to do that, I felt I had to take away the main character’s entire support network and cultural context and build new ones for her consisting entirely of Detroiters. It’s no coincidence that she’s the token non-evil white character. But I couldn’t bring myself to make Aileen really desperate, to take away her privilege entirely. It’s too far outside of my experience; I wouldn’t know how to make it believable. How was she supposed to do the work of listening, learning and adapting, becoming a part of this place, without that safety net? People do it every day, others try and get locked in cages for it. But for all my efforts, I can’t access that intimately enough to tell that story. It’s not mine to tell.
There has to be a knife-edge between poverty fetishism and cultural appropriation. I tried to walk it, starting from my own place of privilege. It was hard. I made mistakes, which had to be pointed out to me. I failed, until final edits with my publisher, to account for Indigenous experience of Detroit. There’s a fierce, funny, freestyle MC I namecheck a couple of times, Miz Korona; I spelled her name wrong. I had to be confronted with, and mortified by, my cultural insensitivity. Repeatedly. But how else am I supposed to learn?
Maybe it’s tempting to read the relative ease with which Aileen adapts and thrives as one of NIGHT ROLL’s fantastic elements. She makes friends who take her at face value; they help her find a job, they support her; she supports them. This is not some utopian dream; I’ve seen it happen. When COVID’s over, I’m going to find all the new families I’ve watched take root here over the past ten years and hug them and thank them. Bring humility and reverence and willingness to work and learn to Detroit and that’s what you’ll find.
“The most radical thing I ever did,” said Grace Lee Boggs, the civil rights activist, community organizer and philosopher, who came to Detroit in 1953 and never left, and to whose work NIGHT ROLL owes another huge debt, “was to stay put.”
I’ve also seen people move here, try to hunker down and ignore what this city is, remain what they were, and fail, spectacularly. And then they were gone. I was headed that way for awhile. After my first year here, I came to an inflection point; I could have moved closer in to the city, taken a leap of faith. I could have pulled up stakes and run. Instead, I moved a little further out, towards the wilderness, such as it is here.
NIGHT ROLL isn’t autobiographical. Like I said, it’s aspirational. I sit out here on the far edge of the city, with easy recourse to these post-industrial woodlands that have become my refuge, and I try to understand and convey something true through story. I haven’t set foot in Detroit since March, for the obvious reasons. I miss it, I root for it, I send money. And this question of authenticity, of earnestness, persists. I want to be able to say there’s magic to be had everywhere, in the city, the suburbs, and deep under trees where after a hundred years it’s work to find anything human. (It’s there, it’s always there, everything is human-touched forever, this place is a crossroads, even the trees followed people here, and more are coming.) I want all the other gentrifying urban fantasists to undertake this work of listening and learning and imagining how it feels, to make their storytelling a place where we progress away from the slaveholding, colonizing, genocidal past of which the suburbs are a legacy and a bastion. The magic is in what you don’t understand yet, and then afterwards it’s in what you understand enough to love. This is the work, it’s how we get better. The old stories, and even the new ones whose authors didn’t know to do this work or didn’t want to: they made this what it is, and they’re making it worse. Because stories are how people learn.
I’m no voice of authority here. I don’t want to be. But I’m trying to be better. We’ve got to keep trying until we get it right.