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“I’ve always been a writer,” said Keenan Norris, an essayist, novelist, and Oakland resident. “I wrote stories when I was a little kid. I always knew that I would be a writer—maybe I didn’t know that I would write books, but I knew I would be some kind of columnist or journalist, something.”
This Tuesday, the Bay Area Book Festival and Museum of the African Diaspora are hosting a book launch event for Norris’ second novel, The Confession of Copeland Cane. The book, which is set in a dystopian Oakland in the 2030s, envisions an East Bay further plagued by gentrification and police brutality.
“It’s my narrative imagining of the future of Oakland, of the Bay Area, and America,” said Norris, who moved to Oakland in 2003 to go to grad school. “I knew that Oakland was much more than the ‘city of dope,’ that it was a Black cultural capital,” said Norris. “It’s been sad to see that part of Oakland’s identity wane over the past two decades due to gentrification and population shift.”
Cherilyn Parsons, founder and executive director of the Bay Area Book Festival, said Copeland Cane strikes close to the current condition of the East Bay and the larger country after a chaotic and devastating year.
“As a community, we’re at a turning point. COVID-era eviction moratoriums are ending; people who marched for racial justice in the streets are going back to work, often to jobs they don’t want; police are supposedly being reformed,” said Parsons. “The Confession of Copeland Cane takes on so many of these issues facing the East Bay, and indeed the United States.”
Norris wrote Copeland Cane over a period of five years. The book was catalyzed by the police killings of Walter Scott, Eric Garner, and others between 2014 and 2015, and informed by Norris’ cumulative experience living in the East Bay since he moved to Oakland nearly two decades ago to attend Mills College.
“I remember wandering around the city, downtown, one day in the early 2000s. San Francisco was beautiful. It was full of money. It was full of tourists and attractions. And every single Black person I saw that day was cracked-out, was destitute, looked like zombies out a horror flick, or prisoners out a detention facility,” said Norris. “It didn’t sit right with my soul. That was the city, as I saw it, then. This book is how Cope and others see the town in a very possible near-future.”
The novel’s protagonist, Copeland Cane V, is a teenager straddling two different worlds, studying at a prep school while his family is facing eviction. The book “outline[s] what an increasingly stratified, gentrified, and privatized East Bay might look like for a Black kid,” explains Norris. In Cope’s community, real estate developers are grabbing land and dispossessing bodies. A corporation, Soclear Broadcasting, is using surveillance technology to watch and harass residents of Cope’s neighborhood in the name of anti-terrorism. After an anti-police brutality protest goes bad, Cope is accused of a crime and fashioned into a fugitive. He tells his story as a confession to a journalism student, giving what Publisher’s Weekly recently described as an accounting of the “economic, legal, and social disparities faced by a dark-complected person in a politically divided country ravaged by a global pandemic.”
Norris wrote the book to help readers understand the point of view of a young Black man living in Oakland now, and lay out what the East Bay will look like in the near future if forces like gentrification, racism, and health disparities continue their trajectories. The book can be interpreted as a cautionary tale and also a call to action.
“The Confession of Copeland Cane is a terrifyingly tiny leap into dystopia; it predicts yet more waves of state oppression and environmental degradation disproportionately inflicted upon Black and brown people,” said Mariko Conner, interim program manager for the Bay Area Book Festival. “With this new book we can laud resistance and resilience, and also stress the need for a society that does not force its people to rely upon those qualities for their very survival.”
At Tuesday’s book launch event, Norris will be in conversation with Michael Datcher, who Norris calls “an amazing brother; novelist, memoirist, and a great literary scholar.” Datcher is the author of Raising Fences: A Black Man’s Love Story.
The Confession of Copeland Cane provides readers a glimpse of an unsettling and very possible future shattered by the impacts of racial injustice, climate disaster, and dispossession in the East Bay. Norris’ fictive vision can help residents understand what is happening now and how to divert it.
“Thanks to the novel’s compelling story and mesmerizing voices, people who have no personal experience with such topics can get a real taste of what they’re like. That alone can help create change,” said Parsons. “Keenan delivers all this with a dystopian twist that perfectly captures the threats, and indeed the insanity, of these issues, and their impacts on all of us.”
The Bay Area Book Festival and the Museum of the African Diaspora will host a book launch event for “The Confession of Copeland Cane,” featuring author Keenan Norris in conversation with Dr. Michael Datcher on Tuesday, June 15, from 7-8 p.m. Registration is free.