Tulsa author tackles Tulsa Race Riots in newest novel

7 March 2017
Michaela Flonard, News Editor

Jennifer Latham discusses how the characters in her new novel represent Tulsa’s history.

After Jennifer Latham’s first novel, “Scarlett Undercover,” which featured a Muslim-American girl as the face of a hardboiled detective agency, she’s moved onto a topic closer to home — the Tulsa Race Riots. Latham’s newest book, “Dreamland Burning,” is a mystery set in two periods, one during 1921 and one set today.

To tell the story, Latham created two characters. Rowan Chase provides the modern voice of a 17-year-old mixed race girl whose parents are a prominent African-American lawyer and the scion of a rich oil family. Will Tillman, then, is the voice of the past, as a 17-year-old-mixed race boy who’s part Native American and part Caucasian.

Rowan’s main aim throughout the novel is finding out more about the skeleton discovered behind her home during construction, while Will faces conflicting pressures from a local Ku Klux Klan member and a burgeoning friendship with two locals from Greenwood.

Latham said she aims to create a cast of diverse characters to mimic life. With “Scarlett Undercover,” she wanted to write a hardboiled detective story and cared about how Muslim-Americans were being treated at the time. “My kids are in school with a lot of Muslim-American kids, and they’re just their friends. I wasn’t seeing those kids being depicted in the national media,” she said.

With “Dreamland Burning,” Latham said her “job was to make some really horrific historical events come alive. So I had to find a way to recreate that world in a way that would let readers connect with it emotionally.” Her characters reflect the makeup of Tulsa — “Tulsa was made up of African-Americans who had Greenwood … European-Americans, who had come out to try to make a fortune in the oil boom, and … Native Americans because this was Native American land. They were moved here by the government.”

“To tell the story about the race riot, race war, race massacre … I had to have a really diverse array of characters,” she said. Both of the characters struggle with privilege of different kinds. According to Latham, Rowan is moreso grappling with that, as she comes from wealth. “She’s perceived as African-American when she goes out, because her skin’s brown … but she’s also someone who’s had a lot of sheltering by her parents and is grappling with a lot of the privilege that a lot of white teenagers also grapple with.”

Although one of Rowan’s friends, James, is aromantic asexual, Latham said “I didn’t consciously choose to have to have an asexual or transgender character, it’s just who James ended up being. I didn’t decide to have that kind of diversity, it just was how James was.”

After writing these characters, Latham had sensitivity readers review the manuscript and comment on her portrayal. These included a biracial (African-American and white) author and members of the Native American community.

Between the two narratives, Latham admitted the 1921 narrative was easier. “I think Rowan was harder because it’s really raw, like the violence against unarmed people is really hard to grapple with. I also know more kids like Rowan, so it was harder to come up with a fictional version that didn’t draw too much on the kids I knew. So I struggled with her parts more.” Additionally, she favored “writing Will’s old fashioned way of speaking; it’s how my grandparents spoke — all the silly things he said, it’s things my grandparents say.”

While Latham has written many diverse characters before, she acknowledged that if someone doesn’t feel comfortable writing like that they shouldn’t do it. But to her, writing that way is her job. “Everybody I write is made up, but they have to have roots in the experiences of real people,” she said, “So my job is to imagine myself in the shoes of other people around me in order to bring the world around me to life.”

She pointed out that “I am a white cisgendered woman. If I could only populate my books with white cisgendered women, they would be so one-dimensional and boring, and I wouldn’t want to read them. So I want to write the world I see around me, the world I care about, a diverse world.”

The book took about five and a half years in total to write, with the first three years dedicated to research. Latham started her research at McFarlin Library’s Special Collections, which houses some of the remaining legal documents of the time. From there, she moved to the internet, gathering information from the Tulsa Historical Society, the City-County Library and recordings of survivors. These recordings shaped her characters the most, as they gave the perspective of those who had lived through the Race Riots, both those in Greenwood and white Tulsans.

Some local teachers and librarians have already seemed interested in teaching “Dreamland Burning,” but Latham hopes to get the book to as many Tulsan school kids as possible. She hopes it “has enough of an emotional impact that it sticks with them, and they even want to go out and find a little bit more and connect what happened in 1921 with some of the things that are happening right now.”

Her inspiration for the book arose from her work with younger kids. Although trained as a school psychologist, Latham taught seventh and eighth grade English when her school needed a teacher. During her tenure, she took her class to the Greenwood Cultural Center. When there, she said that “One of the two hallways in the center has pictures of survivors and I was walking down that hallway, with kids twelve to thirteen … but it made me say, this is a story I really want these kids to connect to.”

A few fiction and nonfiction accounts surrounding Greenwood exist, but as the event isn’t widely known, there are much fewer than other historical traumas like WWII or the sinking of the Titanic. Latham hopes this will begin to change, saying “I’d love to see a lot of books about Greenwood so it can be told from all sorts of different perspectives. This is something authors of color, I’d love to see embrace it; high school kids, I hope it inspires them to talk to their families, find family history and write about it, because that’s a perspective I can’t represent.”

Musician John Legend is currently producing a show on Greenwood, set to air in 2018. Broadway may also soon feature something around the topic, as a playwright and musician in New York reached out to Latham because he’s interested in doing a hip-hop play about the subject.

“Dreamland Burning” is pitched as a young-adult novel, but Latham doesn’t believe that college students should avoid it. “The only reason it’s shelved with YA is because the publisher has to decide where to shelf it. So the characters are in their teens but there’s nothing watered down about the violence and racism.” Further, “I wouldn’t say send your fifth grader to read it because there’s racial slurs, there’s violence. It’s not a kids’ book.”

Latham’s newest book integrates both time periods effortlessly, leading readers to flip quickly between the time periods. Rowan’s story is most relatable to readers, as she deals with figuring out college preparations. Her experiences in modern Tulsa reference local sights and knowledge, making her part even more relatable to locals. Will’s part, by contrast, brings back images of the past, both nostalgic and horrifying.

As for her next book, Latham is looking into World War Two as a potential subject. She plans to potentially tie two time periods together again, but focus on kids in the United States during the war and how they deal with the draft taking loved ones.