It’s the summer before third grade, and I’m not allowed to play in the front yard anymore. Mamma says it’s because of the heat, but I know it’s about the police cars that circle our house like sharks. The…
The first image that came to me, before I knew what this story would be, was that of my narrator’s face pressed up against the window in her living room as she tried to figure out why police cars drove by her house every day. It was this image of my girl that allowed me to tap into a very specific kind of kid fear and intuition, where a constellation of cues give way to the wobbly sense that adult-world happenings aren’t what they seem.
I felt this most intensely as a child when race first came into focus. I hadn’t yet experienced overt racism, but the subtler forms—a snub, a confusing dig, being stared at like I was on fire, being invisible—were far more insidious. In this story, I wanted to capture that sense of deep unease that comes from absorbing invisible blows; from watching the adults around you wrestle with something crushing that’s just out of view.
I’d originally been thinking of this as the foundation for a scene in my novel, which is about multiple generations of a family of color living in an all-white, rural New England town. But I decided this tension would lend itself to a shorter piece, where what an adult reader already understands about the fraught relationship between police and black and brown folks could be an engine beneath the action. With this built-in momentum, the story could take its time with the details, hanging out in every moment the way that kids experience the world. I also hoped to avoid the pitfalls in trying to tell a depressingly familiar story about anti-black police violence by using that story more as subtext.
I think these are the challenges for anyone trying to write adult fiction driven by an authentic kid voice: how to mine the tension between adult reader wisdom and a more limited kid perspective; how to weave those two levels of story together without demeaning your narrator or rendering them passive observer of complex grown-up stuff they can’t understand (there are similar challenges with other kinds of unreliable narrators); and (most obviously) how to express complicated emotions while keeping them firmly rooted in a kid’s POV.
As a little girl, I lived on my bike; my neighborhood was my whole world. I knew where the sidewalk buckled and made for good jumps, which backyard hedges had gaps big enough to cut through to the other side of the block, how many minutes it would take to get back through when I heard my mother call for me. I decided that the frame for the story would be exactly this: one ride around the block. By setting my girl off on her bike and on a mission to solve the mystery of the circling cops, I could give her agency in a situation that would typically render her powerless; I could give her story closure without total resolve. Most importantly I could set her up, in the course of this ride, as outsider in a world (her hood) that should have felt safe and nourishing.
Kids are beautifully literal and direct in the way that they express themselves. My girl didn’t solve her mystery; it is unsolvable. But her final act before completing that lap around the block was her simple, literal defense and reclamation of her home, her dignity.
ESSIE J. CHAMBERS is a Brooklyn-based writer, producer and consultant. Essie has an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University and has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and Vermont Studio Center. She previously held senior executive positions at Nickelodeon and BET Networks, and was a producer on the critically acclaimed PBS documentary, The New Public. She is currently completing her debut novel, Fishbelly.