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Author Michael Chabon channels hometown of Columbia in new book

In an interview with Salon Magazine, Columbia native and author Michael Chabon discusses how his new, racially charged novel was, in part, shaped by his upbringing in Columbia.

In the interview, the Pulitzer-prize winning author said the racial themes in his newest novel, "Telegraph Avenue," grew out of his personal life, specifically the contrast between his upbringing in the racially diverse Columbia to his experiences away from his hometown.

The novel is set in 2004 in Oakland, Cal., and centers on a failing record store and its two interracial owners. According to interviewer Andrew O'Hehir, one of the key themes in novel is "the shifting nature of race relations in the 21st century."

Here's an excerpt from Chabon's interview with Salon Magazine:

  • Chabon: And then the last remaining key element of my biography that I had wandered from, and in some ways the most painful to me — which took me a while to get around to facing — was black people, and their relative visibility or invisibility in my life, in sort of Ellisonian terms. I grew up in Columbia, Md., which during the 10 or 11 years my family lived there tried and to a fair degree succeeded to be a very racially integrated, economically integrated, place where all were welcome.
  • O'Hehir: Yeah, I see where you gave a special acknowledgment to James Rouse, the planner of Columbia. That was a landmark in suburban planning, kind of the birthplace of “new urbanism” and one of the first, if not the first, intentionally integrated suburbs.
  • Chabon: Right. And in Columbia I grew up surrounded by black kids. They were in my classroom, they were my friends, they were my enemies, they were my persecutors and my saviors and my girlfriends and my teachers and my school principals, and when I left Columbia, I rapidly discovered that the rest of the world wasn’t like that. It was a rude awakening for me.

Chabon then goes on to talk about the stark contrast between living in Columbia and Pittsburgh, PA, where, because of the apparent white racism, he "drifted away from that experience of being around black people and living around black people."

Chabon's discussion of the book's characters leads him back to the topic of Columbia through an unlikely source, President Barack Obama. Chabon says Obama's special cameo appearance in the novel, centering on his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, was inspired by memories and experiences from his hometown.

  • Chabon: It’s what I heard Barack Obama, you know, when he gave that keynote address at the 2004 convention – what he was talking about, to me, was Columbia, Md. The America he was describing, was the dream of Columbia, the vision of Columbia, I had grown up believing in.

To read the full interview between Chabon and O'Hehir click here.

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