I started writing “Year Zero” almost three years before it was published on Bird’s Thumb. That’s a long time to spend writing one essay but the themes of gentrification, friendship, privilege, youth, expectation, and disappointment felt too big to rush. More than anything, the evolution of the piece rested on my current project of injecting my race into each story that I write.
In the essay, it felt important to name mine and my friends’ race from the jump, as “five fresh-faced suburban-raised white kids” in Logan Square in 2004. We were gentrifiers, a term I didn’t know then but whose face I wore throughout the neighborhood. “Suburban-raised” was crucial too. Our class couldn’t be separated from our race in this regard. We were kids with access, if not to our own money, to generational white middle-class wealth. With “fresh-faced,” I meant to suggest our youth, as early twenties recent college graduates from university in the cornfields. When I consider that description now, however, I realize how much that contrasts with the physical description of the man who accosted us at the restaurant. “Tufts of hair stuck out from his ears, the lines of his face weathered like grooves in a slab of rock, eyebrows bushy.” I’m struck here by how I’ve given a detailed description of a Latino man while my friends and I are a mass of indeterminate whiteness. But I’m concerned that he’s one of only two characters of color in the story (the other was my Persian restaurant manager) and he’s a wobbly drunk. On the one hand, that is a real encounter that happened our actual first night in Chicago and attention to the truth of the moment must be observed. On the other, I’m wading into dangerous imaginative waters here, replicating a common trope: “the anxious, entangling encounters with others. . .that appear there primarily as an occasion for the writers to encounter her own feelings,” as Beth Loffreda and Claudia Rankine write in their introduction to The Racial Imaginary.
We lived in a community of color that was changing, that we were helping to change, faster than we realized at the time. By putting ourselves inside that space, that meant we were changing too, from people raised in mostly white suburban or rural spaces to individuals who lived and worked in communities far more integrated than those we’d known previously. Nevertheless, our whiteness persisted. It is inextricable to the stories of our lives, to the lives we are always living, each day, every second. If I don’t name it, how will anyone know who we are? How will I be able to tell our story? It is through injecting whiteness onto myself, or rather understanding that I too am racialized and that race is white, that I can at least attempt to dismantle whiteness as the normative setting in my work. I don’t expect always succeed. It won’t directly address the institutional whiteness that is stitched through the publishing world, and the direct line between whiteness and prestige that still exists in our (white people’s) collective modes of literary thinking, of what it valued and assigned greatness. But by identifying myself as white, by using that notion to undermine and interrogate my own whiteness, I try to betray myself a little bit.
If we—by which I mean “you,” the white reader of this essay—can move away from making whiteness the default setting, then we as white writers and white readers can do the smallest part in helping re-make our world.
Read Nicholas's essay "Year Zero."
Nicholas Ward‘s writing has appeared in Bird's Thumb, Catapult, Midwestern Gothic, Hobart, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and is forthcoming from CityLab; been featured on stages and in bars around Chicago; and can be heard on the 2nd Story podcast, where he is a longtime company member. He lives in Chicago with Amadeus, the cat.