America is a land of binaries, filled with people who are all too eager to ascribe the reductive qualities of "good" and "bad"—or "black" and "white"—to everything around them. This, then, is perhaps why spy novels are so appealing—particularly those set during the Cold War, when the idea of "us versus them" (or "U.S. versus them") resonated throughout society. Of course, most binaries are lies, and the idea that America's role in global politics has ever been an uncomplicated good would be a farce if it weren't so tragic.
But both farce and tragedy make for good fiction, and it is in the realm of both that Lauren Wilkinson's brilliant debut novel, American Spy, was born. Set primarily during the waning days of the Cold War, when America was hard at work overthrowing socialist-minded leaders throughout the world, the novel centers around Marie Mitchell, a Black FBI agent who is routinely ignored by her boss, and gets clandestinely recruited by a CIA agent who wants Marie to help overthrow Thomas Sankara, the charismatic, socialist leader of Burkina Faso. Marie's work with Sankara—as well as the complicated family history that led her to join the FBI, to begin with—is told from a later vantage point, through a long letter of sorts that she is writing to her twin 5-year-old sons. Wilkinson is adept at skipping back-and-forth through time, weaving in various characters (both wholly imagined and based on real people), and traveling from Harlem in the '80s and Brooklyn in the '60s to suburban Connecticut and Burkina Faso and Martinique. It is, all at once, a dynamic political thriller, a complex look at race and gender in America, and a love story—not just between romantic partners, but love between family, love stretched so thin it's amazing it doesn't break.
Recently, I spoke with Wilkinson about the inspiration for America Spy, the double consciousness of Black Americans, and what kind of complications ensue when writing about real historical figures. Read our interview, below.
What was your initial inspiration for writing about a Black woman spy? There are so many layers of double consciousness in this narrative, but its vision is so clear. How did you begin writing about Marie?
The first thing I envisioned was a mother who, by all appearances, seemed like a regular suburban mom, and then something happens to reveal that that is not the case. That came up during a class with John Freeman, when he was editor at Granta and when I was in grad school at Columbia. He was like, "Suburbia in America is unhappiness."We read suburban stories from John Updike, John Cheever, and he told us to write a story that wasn't going to fall into the rubric that we knew. For me, the first thing I saw was this conflict, something as opposite to Rabbit, Run as possible, a woman who the narrator doesn't actively hate. I had that idea, that she is revealed as a spy, and I was like, No, I have to figure out how to write it. It came up as a metaphor first, and then I realized I needed to learn about spy novels, give her a backstory. Like, now that I've put my foot in it, I'll figure out how to follow up.
It's quite a follow-up! And it's not just the premise that's so interesting—that this young mother of two is also a spy in hiding—but the framing of the narrative is so fascinating. A lot of it is in epistolary form, as a long letter to Marie's young sons, and it also jumps back-and-forth through time. At what point did you realize that that's how you were going to write it?
I definitely tumbled toward it. I wasn't like, Ah-ha! What I wrote for John Freeman, he eventually published in Granta, and that is in the third person. I had people read it, and the feedback was that they liked the story, but once I started trying to make the story into a novel, it was too distant in third person. I thought that made sense, because she's a spy, and she's not going to be spilling her guts, so I had to think, Who's she going to be honest with?Who would she always tell the truth to? And it had to be her sons. Also, I wanted to try to create as much intimacy as possible. I had read Gilead by Marilyn Robinson and was so moved by it. It's so beautiful and moving, so I was like, Gotta steal that! [laughs] It took a few drafts for me to figure it out, that's for sure.
There are so many fascinating dualities in this book. One of them really is the mother/spy dynamic, because they're both such archetypal figures, and a really rare combination. What was your initial interest in the idea of the woman spy?
My initial interest came from a metaphorical place, and I had to double back and make it a literal spy story. I thought it was an oversight, a surprise to me in the way we conceive of the spy in popular culture, that spies are always that person who's always confident in every scenario, the person who never feels like they're questioning themselves and their identity. It has to not be that way for real spies. I'm sure it's a kind of an anxious thing to be constantly aware that how you see yourself is not how you present yourself. That, to me, felt like what I wanted to write, because it felt more true. It felt like it made sense to me. Like, James Bond: We love him, but he doesn't make a lot of sense as a spy and agent.
I wanted to write a woman because I felt like there was space there for something new. A lot of classic spy novels that have been written have been written by men, the emotional lives and interest of female characters—when they exist—are not really developed. I was like, I'm going to do the exact opposite. This is where my interest kept going, as a reader. I ended up trying to write in a place where my interest kept going as a reader when I was reading other spy novels. Why does Liz Gold like Leamas in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold? And [Phuong in]The Quiet American? She was characterized by never being able to express herself, she was a woman caught between two men. Surely she's more, surely women can be more than that in spy novels.
So many of those spy novels you mentioned, the spies in them, even if they're out of their elements, you can imagine that they might have some place where they might have felt at home. With Marie, what is so clear is that she never got to have that. As a Black woman in America, she is rarely treated as if she belongs anywhere. But even when she goes to Africa, to Burkina Faso, for the first time, she stands out for being American, a label she doesn't discard fully, even as it's impossible to embrace it. Did writing this novel give you a different perspective on being American?
I think I was changed. I went to Burkina about a year after I sold the novel. There, I really had the experience of being abroad and being seen as American first, and Black second. I'd been to West Africa before—I'd been to Ghana, and I didn't feel so foreign there—but in Burkina, I really felt foreign. I was struck by how often people were able to pick me out as foreign, the way that I was conceived of was so clearly different from the way I conceive myself. I guess that experience of re-contextualizing yourself often happens when you travel, which I guess is why travel is so expanding. Feeling that, I brought that into what I was writing. That's just a part of what I was thinking about, and then became a part of what I was working on. Those two things, doing the writing and then being in a new place where I saw myself totally differently, really informed each other and informed my perception of myself. It was a nice balance.
The bulk of the novel's action takes place in the late-'80s and late-'60s, early-'70s, and it involves real people, like Burkina Faso's former leader, Thomas Sankara. What came first when you were thinking about when to set the novel? Was it the era? Or the people involved?
It was purely determined by Sankara. I knew I wanted to include him as a character, I was like, Oh, okay, he existed at a certain time. I had to create that time. One of the reasons I went to Burkina was because I wanted to be able to understand him in context. I didn't want to be writing about him from a distance. He's a really important person to a lot of people. I wanted to go there and understand—even though it's so much later—where he'd be coming from. Once it started with him and the boundaries of his life, knowing that he wouldn't be my main character and Marie would be, I had to map out her life and I gave her my mother's birthday. It's hard to keep track of someone else's life like that. It was easier for me because my mom mostly grew up in Brooklyn, so it was easy to ask her about New York at the time; I used her as a reference. I tried to go back as far as I could, as far as my mother could, and filled in some gaps. That was my approach to it. There's a lot of material about Sankara, and a lot of it is in French. I read a lot of interviews with him—he appears in documentaries; there's a lot of archival footage of him—just to get a sense of who he was.
It is such a responsibility to write about someone who, not only was real, but was also so important to so many people for reasons that could make it terrifying to fictionalize him. Was there a point where you were like, Look, this is my novel, and it doesn't matter if I'm exactly accurate, I just have to do what's true to my story?
Definitely. I feel like there are people who feel entitled to tell whatever story from their perspective, and I respect that and appreciate that, but it's something that I'm struggling with. I'm not Burkinabé. I admire Sankara, and am really impressed by all that he did for his country. I think it's a crazy oversight that he's not better known in the United States. Coming from that place, I tried not to put too many words into his mouth. You can't complicate someone if they're not a good or interesting character. To be totally honest with you, it was hard for me. I don't want to present it like I'm an authority. I very specifically made Marie's time in Burkina match the time that I spent there because she's an outsider in that culture and I didn't want to suggest anything else.
One thing that's really resonant in so many of these characters is the fact that, even when it doesn't serve them, they're committed to their existing lifestyle, an existing ideology, an existing path. It's very evocative of so many people who are entrenched in what they think the world is going to be or should be, and they don't understand how it could be anything else, so they'll fight to keep their own way of life going.
Everyone thinks they're right and that they're doing the right thing. That's what I feel like I was inspired by, our current moment. Everyone feels like they're doing the right thing, people who voted for Trump felt like that was going to serve them, serve their families and be a benefit. I don't see the world that way, but they really were convinced. That's always how it is. There are few people who think they're bad. When you bump up against that, you can see that [opposing] people can think they're doing the right things and be in conflict. That's more true about the world than just going like, Oh, let me do harm, let me be evil.
While you were writing American Spy, were you just extra-aware and jumpy every time you heard a floorboard creak or saw a van on your street?
I think my awareness was always heightened for those kinds of things. As a single woman in New York, that's just how I exist. As a spy, Marie is hyper-aware of her surroundings. Maybe I wasn't like that, but I did feel myself getting into her mindset for certain things because of how long I was working on it. Trying to be like, What can I guess about a person before they talk? How much do I know? How right am I? That's almost exactly how it was before the book.
American Spy is available for purchase, here.
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