How What Came Before Came to BeWhat Came Before was conceived as a comedy with lots of broad humor and exaggerated characters, but as I began to work, I realized I needed to write about something I cared about, that there had to be a reason beyond car chases for a piece of writing to exist. I rethought the whole thing, asking myself, what would be interesting to me, important for me to say. Stories--good stories--had to be about something that mattered, either to me and/or to others.
In the beginning, Abbie's missing half-sister was white, like Abbie and like me, and I kept running up against my own question, "so what?" “Where’s the tension?” I reached into my own life, my own experiences, my own childhood.
I grew up in California, but my mom came from a little town in Louisiana and my dad from Iowa. Since my dad was a teacher, we climb into our old Pontiac as soon as school was out and head east to corn country, then head down to Terrebonne parish. That’s where I ran smack dab into Jim Crow laws.
I loved going to the grocery store with my grandpa. He was a sunburned Santa Claus who smelled of figs and cigars filling our cart on rolls and rolls of toilet paper, paper towels, cans of tomato sauce and bottles of soda pop. I liked to hold onto the front and ride while he pushed through the aisle. Then at some point when I was four or five – I don’t really remember exactly when – he let me go off to get a drink of water by myself.
I stood in front of two water fountains instead of one wondering which one I wanted. I’d never had a choice before. Not in California.
One was labeled “white” and one was labeled “colored.” What would most little kids chose? I chose “colored,” of course, because to my mind that meant the water would come out like a rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple. When it didn’t, I was disappointed. I turned on the white one. The two sprays of water were exactly the same. I was confused and angry.
I ran back to my grandpa. He said one was for white people, the other was for black people. When I asked why, he just shrugged. I don’t remember for sure but I think it was my father who explained it to me, that this kind of thing existed in the world.
And I wish I could say I knew instinctively at that young age the wrongness of it, but I didn’t. It’s something I have learned as I’ve grown into myself, through reading, through the experiences of the growing up in the fifties and sixties, how human beings tend to exist in a real world. “What Came Before” springs from a desire to show that people are more alike than different and that our differences enrich us.