You know when you read a good book and wish you could speak to the author about it? Well, imagine my excitement to speak to John Vercher, the writer of After the Lights Go Out (to be referred to as “ALGO” from this point), a 2022 novel published by Pushkin Press.
ALGO explores the life of Xavier Wallace, a mixed-race Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter. When we meet Xavier he’s battling pugilistic dementia while coming to terms with ageing in a sports career. Pugllistic dementia is a form of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) more common among – but not limited to – atheletes who sustain concussions, and manifests with characteristics of dementia.
In the background, Xavier is also contending with his white father’s end-stage Alzheimers and the revealed latent racism that has accompanied his decline.
It was not intentional, but my meeting with John ended up happening while I was in the middle of Lagos’ Monday evening traffic. I had underestimated how long it would take me to get home, and Lagos traffic had other plans.
Surprisingly, these surroundings were insightful. During my conversation with John I realised that from my car, I could see all the intersections and interactions of Lagos’ sociopolitical climate. The police eyeing which cars to pull over to extort; hawkers shouting at the top of their lungs in hopes of finding their next customer; people desperately cleaning windscreens with liquid soap in the hopes of getting a little change; or finally reaching the front of the traffic jam to realise the holdup was bad roads that could (and should) have easily been fixed a while ago, but have gotten worse from negligence, corruption and bad governance.
John reflects on this during our conversation., “I really do find some poetry in the mundane aspects of life,” he muses. “I feel like we are always so focused on big broad aspects of life that we often miss the little things that make it so terrible, and at times, wonderful.
What is revealed by the everyday
Linking this to ALGO he says: “for me, it was important to hone in on the things that were everyday and average about his [the main character, Xavier’s] life and about the lives of all the characters. I feel like that makes them the most human.”
As such, much of John’s writing is influenced by his lived experiences. He describes aspects of ALGO as “somewhat autofiction.” The characters in ALGO borrowed from him, his friends, and people he knew. Focusing on the mundane aspects of their lives allowed him to make his characters come alive. As John says: “it establishes some connection where you start to actually feel for this character, and maybe put yourself in their shoes, whether you’ve experienced that situation or not.”
For example, he recognises how “coming from a mixed race background, being light skinned, there are privileges that I have.” Some of these recognitions have come from mundane aspects of his existence, such as the subtleties in how his Black father had a different hair texture to him, or from simply watching an episode of Dear White People, where a character mentioned to another character to “check her light skinned privilege.”
To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say that John subtly explores this idea of colourism in how Xavier exists in contrast to his Black, dark skin cousin, Shot, through the mundane aspects of their lives as children and as adults.
By exploring the everyday, John utilises a method of storytelling that reveals the extraordinary nature of what is commonplace. By doing this he is creating a novel which aims, as he says, “to not wag the finger or lecture, but to intertwine very real parts of our lives.”
Exploring the mundane also provides a point of empathy for the reader. As John explains, “I feel like that’s what holds a mirror up” That regardless of identity, or despite any “delusions of grandeur,” our ordinary experiences show how we simultaneously are and aren’t so different.
One significant everyday interaction he chooses to explore is love.
On the different forms of love
At face value, I didn’t expect a book about a mixed-race MMA fighter to explore love so much. And not simply love on a romantic level, but a civic level, and how we, as a society, conceptualise love.
John and I had a tough conversation about love. What made these conversations even more challenging was that we left them with many unanswered questions about how love affects identity and community.
It truly illustrated the messiness and complexity of our existence as Black people in hetero-patriarchal, white supremacist, capitalist systems. We are still finding our way in the messiness of how we exist.
The most apparent theme explored in relation to love in ALGO is its intersection with mixed-race identity.
Xavier, the main character and our POV, has a white father, Sam, and a Black mother, Evelyn. I was curious about John’s thoughts on what love (particularly between two cisgender, heterosexual people) looks like in a mixed-race relationship.
It is difficult to ignore the apparent power dynamics that could present themselves in the relationship between Sam and Evelyn, and even between Sam and his son, Xavier. Can love exist in this situation?
John describes himself as a product of a mixed-race relationship and notes that he is currently exploring those ideas and questions. John explains that ALGO was a way to explore “this hierarchical nature of it… because we live in a country that’s so dominated by white supremacist ideas… can there be an equal love with that hierarchy?”
He continues by noting, “I think in a lot of circumstances, and even I think in a lot of fiction, those relationships are portrayed in sort of an idealistic way… like, ‘this is how the two sides come together, and this is how we can heal the world.’ Well, I’m a product of a mixed-race relationship and while I would love to believe that, I know that cannot always be the case.”
Love in a politicised society
Our discussions of love in society are often emotionally charged and shaped by cultural and material power structures. As such, it is easy to see these love relations as inherently wounded and fated to fail. Portrayed in the book as a racist white man, Sam is not expected to love Evelyn, a Black woman, or their son.
However, to reduce this love to the inequalities fostered ignores how it can exist simultaneously with agency, intimacy and tenderness, despite the inequalities. Complex forms of intimacy can transcend wounds.
John notes how it is often easy to ignore how racist people can have the capacity for love despite the racism they enact.
We see this with Sam’s interaction with Xavier. Despite the racism Sam spouts as a result of his cognitive decline, that relationship is still not devoid of intimacy and some understanding of love. Their relationship is complex, particularly when Sam’s illness is taken into account, but not void of intimacy and affection.
John mentions, “I wrote this right in the thick of the Trump presidency, in the pandemic, and I was watching a lot of people cut people out of their lives because they had revealed themselves to be aligned with a man who was hateful and racist towards a lot of other people. And then there were others who, while they were disgusted by family members and friends who were acting in that way, couldn’t just flip that switch. They couldn’t just say ‘I can’t have you in my life.’ So I wanted to write about that complication and that loyalty that love generates.”
For me, this ultimately revealed two things:
We cannot simply heal a long and complex history of racial violence by engaging in interracial relationships.
Despite the often apparent power dynamics, these interracial relationships aren’t necessarily devoid of love, intimacy and agency.
It is essential to understand the complex, messy and dynamic nature of our love towards each other that often sits within capitalist, heteropatriarchal, white supremacist systems, and how we negotiate how we experience love and with who based on the inequalities these systems foster.
I had to sit with my conversation with John for a few days because, as he mentioned, like many people, I also struggle to attach the capacity to truly love and be loved to a racist.
But I also could not ignore how John communicated this possibility by simply giving us a snapshot of a few weeks of Xavier’s everyday life. Then, discussing this with him and unpacking it was an even more enlightening experience because I was confronted with the messiness of it.
John and I also discussed this messiness in the context of other identity markers with the capacity to shift power: gender, sexual orientation, class.
There are various power dynamics that complicate our interactions with each other and love towards each other. These dynamics have to be constantly negotiated with complicated feelings of intimacy, desire and pleasure.
I have a habit of saying, “go where love is,” but with complex power dynamics, how do we recognise where love is? Should we ignore feelings of love and desire when it appears within a clear structure of inequality? In fact, is there ever a condition where the inequality does not exist?
When we consider the circulatory and dynamic nature of power, is the inequality fixed? Are people disposable and undeserving of love when they exist in positions of power and are determined to not have the capacity for love?
These were some of the questions John and I left our conversation with.
I will be honest that I do not have the answers. Not yet anyway, and this is assuming there are answers. I am left with a dissonance that has motivated some reading on my end to root me back to love and hopefully expand my understanding of love. I will share some of the readings I have started with below.