A Man Learns The Truth About His Adoption In 'Everybody's Son'

Jun 3, 2017
Originally published on June 3, 2017 10:35 am

A mother leaves her 9-year-old son locked in an airless apartment for a week with no food, water or light. He breaks out through a window, and police find him weak and bleeding; they also find his mother passed out in a nearby crack house.

The boy, Anton, winds up in the hearts and arms of David and Delores Coleman, a prominent political couple who raise him with all the advantages their name, wealth and love can offer. Anton grows up to be a man of character and distinction — and then discovers the truth: that his adopted father manipulated his biological mother into giving him up.

That's the plot of Everybody's Son, a new novel by Thrity Umrigar. Umrigar says the book's title reflects the fact that Anton belongs to both his black biological mother and his white adopted family. "They all have competing claims on him and they all perhaps love him and need him for slightly different reasons," she says. "But if I have done my job right, the reader will understand that there is not one of these characters who would not give their life for this boy."


Interview Highlights

On Anton's biological mother, Juanita

One of the things that it was very important for me to convey in this novel is that despite the fact of her addiction and despite how harsh the bare bones facts of what happens very early ... in the book, Juanita is actually a very good mom. And the paradox of this whole situation is nobody else seems to know that except for her son himself, who is of course her victim. And yet the court system, you know, the police and certainly David Coleman himself all seem to think of her as a very bad mother, which arguably in some ways she is because, all said and done, she does abandon her son for a week.

On where the Colemans are in their lives when they decide to adopt Anton

They have lost their own biological son several years prior to when the novel opens. And as is often true with couples, they each mourn in their own way. I don't think either one of them has really had an extended conversation about whether they should, you know, permanently adopt another child. But clearly David appears to be edging toward that with an express desire to foster a child. And each seems to think that they are giving the other what they want or what they secretly desire, but of course they never quite have that conversation openly and candidly with one another. ... And then what ends up happening, of course, is that David sees the untapped potential in Anton and convinces himself — in that self-delusionary way that human beings often operate — that he only wants to permanently have custody of Anton because it's in the boy's best interest and sort of conveniently ignores the fact that it is also what his heart desires.

On Anton's struggle for identity, which a college girlfriend distills for him

I think she says something to the effect of, "I can't decide if you're the whitest black man I've ever known or the blackest white man I've ever known." You know, because Anton is grappling throughout the novel with this question of, well, who is he? He clearly looks African-American, even though there are many people who sort of mistake him for being Middle Eastern. He's extremely light skinned, but clearly he is not white. And yet he is raised with all the privileges that the Colemans — who are not just this white family but almost this patrician, aristocratic white family — can bestow and confer upon him. So it is a question of who does Anton become at the end of the novel and how does he reconcile the various strains of his life and all the contributions that each one of his parents makes to build him into becoming who he does.

On writing a novel about white American and African-American characters when she herself is from India

I did not spend a lot of time debating whether I had the moral or even the literary authority to write the book. If I thought about it at all it was from the point of view of, I mean, heck, if people can write about UFOs and space aliens, why the heck can't I write a novel about somebody who happens to be from a different race? ... The thing that mattered to me in the writing of this novel is the thing that matters to me in every book that I've ever written, which is: Am I writing a book that is emotionally honest? ...

Having said all that, I mean, clearly when you're writing about a community that is not yours, a culture that is not yours, you know, it comes with great responsibility. And that's a responsibility that I take seriously. So you can bet that I did my research when I wrote this book. You can bet that I was trying not to indulge in stereotypes of any kind. I didn't want to take any shortcuts in the writing of this book.

Radio producer Lucy Perkins, radio editor Jordana Hochman and digital producer Nicole Cohen contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A 9-year-old boy is saved after his mother leaves him in a locked airless apartment for a week - no food, water or light. He breaks out through a window, and police find him weak and bleeding. They find his mother passed out in a crack house nearby. But that boy, Anton, winds up in the hearts and arms of the Coleman's, a prominent political family who rear him with all the advantages their name, wealth and love can confer. He grows up to be a man of character and distinction and then discovers the truth. "Everybody's Son" is the new novel by Thrity Umrigar, author of "The Space Between Us" and other acclaimed novels. She joins us now from the studios of WCPN in Cleveland. Thanks so much for being with us.

THRITY UMRIGAR: It's a pleasure being here, Scott.

SIMON: I purposely didn't mention because the copy on the flap of your book doesn't relay that Anton and the parents who adopt him are of different races.

UMRIGAR: I noticed that.

SIMON: Is the copy flap trying to accomplish something to lead people into the novel?

UMRIGAR: To be perfectly candid with you, I had not realized this until I heard your introduction. And I'm kind of proud of the fact that it doesn't. I'm just being very honest. I hadn't noticed that myself.

SIMON: Help us understand the story. The Colemans are David and Delores Coleman. And they take Anton into their family as a foster son. They're not both in agreement at first, are they?

UMRIGAR: No, not at all. They have lost their own biological son several years prior to when the novel opens. I don't think either one of them has really had an extended conversation about whether they should, you know, permanently adopt another child. Each seems to think that they are giving the other what they want or what they secretly desire. So, in some sense, they have kind of blundered their way into fostering Anton.

And then what ends up happening, of course, is that David sees the untapped potential in Anton and convinces himself in that self-delusionary way that human beings often operate that he only wants to permanently have custody of Anton because it's in the boy's best interest and sort of conveniently ignores the fact that it is also what his heart desires.

SIMON: I read the bare bones of the plot premise, obviously, and the introduction. But Anton's mother, Juanita, has an explanation for what's happened that's better than those bare facts, doesn't she?

UMRIGAR: Yes, very much so. One of the things that it was very important to me to convey in this novel is that despite the fact of her addiction, Juanita is actually a very good mom. And the paradox of this whole situation is nobody else seems to know that except for her son himself, who is, of course, her victim. And yet, the court system, you know, the police and certainly David Coleman himself all seem to think of her as a very bad mother, which, arguably, in some ways, she is because, all said and done, she does abandon her son for a week.

SIMON: And granted, crack addiction is not - is rarely associated with good parenting.

UMRIGAR: Yes, exactly. Precisely so. And yet, none of Anton's parents - you know, everybody in some ways is a flawed character. But they are all at least convincing themselves that they are acting in the boy's best interests.

SIMON: When did this story begin in your mind? And what put it there, do you think?

UMRIGAR: It's very strange, Scott. I kid you not, the entire book kind of presented itself to me in a span of maybe 15 to 30 seconds. It felt like, you know, some carpet like unfurling in front of me. But having said that, no book exists in a vacuum, right? It always exists in some kind of a larger context. So, of course, this is when the whole Black Lives Matter movement was ascendant. This was also in the waning years of the Obama presidency. You know, all these things were swirling around not just in my head, but also in the body politic so to speak.

SIMON: Yeah. Did you hesitate at all trying to write a novel about a white family who adopted an African-American son because you're from neither community or did that not matter, or is that why you did it?

UMRIGAR: You know, Scott, I certainly did not write this novel to be provocative or inflammatory in any way. To be perfectly honest with you, I did not spend a lot of time debating whether I had the moral or even the literary authority to write the book. I mean, heck, if people can write about UFOs and space aliens, why the heck can't I write a novel about somebody who happens to be from a different race?

You know, it is an undeniable fact that I was born and lived in India until I was 21. But it is also true that I've spent my entire adult life in the United States. And if you're casting around for an American topic to write about that reflects accurately, you know, my life in the last 30 years, what more quintessentially American topic than race and race relations, you know? But if you look at my entire body of work, Scott, every book that I've written in some ways deals with the issue of power. You know, who has power? Who uses it against whom for what reason?

Now, having said all that, I mean, clearly, when you're writing about a community that's not yours, a culture that is not yours, you know, it comes with great responsibility. And that's a responsibility that I take seriously. So you can bet that I did my research. You can bet that I was trying not to indulge in stereotypes of any kind. But the last thing I want to do as a writer is tell the same story over and over again. You know, I want to tell stories about the country that I now call mine and call home.

SIMON: Thrity Umigar, her novel "Everybody's Son." Thanks so much for being with us.

UMRIGAR: Thank you, Scott. It was truly a pleasure talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.