No easy answers: Cecilia Rabess on her new novel, Everything's Fine
The writer's hilarious, astute debut asks questions about race, class, politics and identity, and refuses to offer neat solutions.
'A subtle, ironic, wise state-of-the-nation novel, sharp enough to draw blood, hidden inside a moving, intimate, sincere and very real love story – or vice versa.' Nick Hornby
In Cecilia Rabess's 'stunning debut' (Meg Mason), a progressive Black woman and a conservative white man fall in love, and everything is most definitely not fine. It is, however, moving, hilarious, morally complex and compulsively readable. Here, she explains why she has always sought to ask more questions than she answers.
Zora Neale Hurston said, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” To that I would add: there are books that ask questions and books that answer. Books that build toward clarity and books that build from a place of clarity. Books that seek truth and books that supply it. Or, put more bluntly, books that fuck around and books that find out.
When I started writing my debut novel, Everything’s Fine, I was full of questions. It was 2018, two years into Donald Trump’s earth-shattering presidency and, like many Americans, I was trying to make sense of everything that had happened in recent history, to reconcile how radically the political climate and national discourse had seemed to shift. I wanted to understand. To find answers. And out of that reckoning, this book was born.
In the novel, Jess, a young progressive Black woman, meets Josh, a young conservative white man, and they fall reluctantly, complicatedly, but still passionately, in love. It’s a story about two very different young people – opposites politically – who come together and come undone against a backdrop of increasing political polarization in the United States, during the run up to Trump’s presidency.
‘I’ve always loved a good love story, but even the best ones can often exist in binary: bubblegum rom-com on the one hand or war torn lovers and somebody dies at the end on the other. I really wanted to write something in between, something that felt real and nuanced and contemporary.’
I didn’t actually set out to write a political novel per se. In fact, when I started writing all I had in mind was a love story. I’ve always loved a good love story, but even the best ones can often exist in binary: bubblegum rom-com on the one hand or war torn lovers and somebody dies at the end on the other. I really wanted to write something in between, something that felt real and nuanced and contemporary. But I wasn’t completely sure what that would look like. I didn’t really have a plot or characters or a setting. Then I read an article in New York Magazine called “Donald Trump is Destroying my Marriage,” which kind of blew my mind. I just could not imagine in our polarized society how these opposite-side-of-the-aisle pairings existed, much less were thriving (spoiler alert: they weren’t!) So trying to imagine what such a relationship could look like was my way in. It allowed me to write an utterly contemporary love story that asked questions about race and class and politics and identity.
Questions like: What does it mean to be a Black woman moving through a white world, when your relationship with your blackness is constantly being tested, not only by the man you love, but also by your own insecurities? What happens in a relationship when one person says “politics” and the other says “my humanity”? Can people really ever just “agree to disagree”? What do we compromise in order to live and love in challenging times? And what if this isn't a love story that asks will they, but should they?
‘There's a question that underpins the entire project of the novel. A question without an answer (or without a satisfying one anyway). A question that I hope and expect readers to sit with long after they’ve read the last word on the last page and filed the book away on their shelves. And that question is this: where is the line?’
These were questions that interested me as I wrote, and while they are the questions at the heart of the story, there is a bigger question, I think, that will preoccupy readers. People often ask me what I want readers to take away from the book. Partially the answer to that question is that I want the experience to feel like a Rorschach test – to accommodate different readers’ different perspectives, biases, hopes, fears and frustrations. But mainly the answer to that is (surprise!) another question. A question that underpins the entire project of the novel. A question without an answer (or without a satisfying one anyway). A question that I hope and expect readers to sit with long after they’ve read the last word on the last page and filed the book away on their shelves.
And that question is this: where is the line?
Increasingly we all must live and love in polarizing times. Increasingly, our fractured political climate insists that we decide: Who is and who isn’t on our side? What should and shouldn’t we compromise? And at the end of the day, what is and isn’t all right? To me, the answer isn’t obvious. Even if we draw the line at the people who do or wish us harm, the question becomes who are those people exactly and how do we decide? The assumption here is of course that drawing such a line is the right way to negotiate our differences. And while reasonable people will disagree with that assumption, it’s fortunately, not quite the question the book is interested in. The more interesting question is not should we draw a line, but where do we draw it?
‘Imagine we stood everyone in the world up in a line, and we agreed that we would throw away all the people and perspectives that we disagreed with. At what point do we excise someone from our life? What exceptions do we make and why?’
Imagine we stood everyone in the world up in a line, and we agreed that we would throw away all the people and perspectives that we disagreed with. Where, exactly, would we draw the line? Who would be on one side and who would be on the other? What would we do with all the people who voted for the thing that we didn’t? With the people who sympathize with the wrong people or say the wrong things? Would we automatically put them on the “other” side of the line? How do we negotiate between the extremes? How much of someone’s politics would we need to agree with to keep them on our side? Would it be 100%? 51%? At what point do we excise someone from our life? What exceptions do we make and why?
Again, the point here is not to suggest that there isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a line – sometimes a very bright line – but to contemplate the murky calculus of how we decide who lives on one side and who lives on the other. To ponder where exactly the distinction between us and them arises?
And to ask what happens when someone we love is on the wrong side of the line?
It should be clear by now that I don’t have answers. What I do have is a novel that explores this question and all of its contents through the story of a young Black woman who is trying to figure out who she is and who she wants to be, and more importantly, who she has the right to be. Writing this novel, and writing towards these answers was sometimes sad, sometimes funny, but always absolutely exhilarating. I hope readers’ experience of this book is much the same.
Author photo: Koosh Graphics