Title: The Terrifying Tyranny of Gentrification
I’ve read a lot of books this year, and I don’t think any have made me as angry as Alyssa Cole’s When No One Is Watching. In this creepy thriller, a woman named Sydney is watching her historic Brooklyn neighborhood taken over by … well, white people. Her friends and older neighbors are disappearing, replaced by well-off women who call the police for every perceived threat, no matter how innocuous. The corner bodega has become a swanky health food store run by a racist. And coming soon: a brand-new pharmaceutical company campus that promises to “revitalize” the neighborhood.
But what’s really going on here? Why are so many people selling the homes they’ve lived in all their lives? The answer grows more complex as Sydney investigates the shady dealings of the pharmaceutical company and its peculiar interest in her neighborhood. Strange things happen that send Sydney’s paranoia spiraling out of control: a suspicious van with no plates casing her neighborhood, threats from an ex-cop, a friend’s possible disappearance. Pretty soon, it becomes obvious that something sinister is happening … and Sydney is going to get to the bottom of it.
Obviously this book is great and you should read it. But what sets Cole’s writing apart is how she helps readers develop an empathy with Sydney and her neighborhood. You should get angry when you read this book–not just because the particulars of gentrification are common in a lot of neighborhoods, but because of the incredible levels of injustice that permeate this book. Sydney’s neighborhood isn’t naturally disappearing–it’s being forcefully and violently mutated. And she has no one to help her.
The Negation of the Negation
This is the negation of the negation. Robert McKee describes this (in his fantastic book Story)as a compound negative in which “a life situation turns not just quantitatively but qualitatively worse. The Negation of the Negation is at the limit of the dark powers of human nature.” This is what makes stories powerful. Justice is what we all seek. It’s what we consider the natural positive state. We all want justice. On the opposite end of the spectrum is injustice. We don’t like that. We see it as a negative.
But what’s worse than injustice? Tyranny. It’s one thing to live in a world where injustice clearly exists. It’s another thing entirely to live in a world where the very concept of justice is determined by the people in power. What’s right can change overnight. The law can be applied to different people in different ways.
Sydney’s struggle to find the truth is infuriating because at every step of the way, her antagonists have the law squarely on their side! The new white residents can call the police anytime they want, and the Black neighbors will always be suspects. The new landlords can evict whomever they want, using obscure laws as justification. Without the law on her side, Sydney is forced to exist in a permanent state of lawlessness. Even when she’s doing the right thing.
Writing Activity: Who Makes the Law?
When a story approaches the Negation of the Negation, it becomes more meaningful. This activity will help you go beyond the concept of “Justice vs. Injustice.” By the time you’re done with this writing assignment, you’ll have delved even deeper into the concept of Tyranny. We’ll use a somewhat cliched example, but I think its familiarity will really help you grasp the concept in a more meaningful way.
Step one: Set your story in a small town in an isolated county. There’s one sheriff. He’s the son of the previous sheriff. He dispenses the law.
Step two: This sheriff enforces the law how he pleases. Pick a law or crime to focus on. It could be domestic abuse, or drug charges, or trespassing, etc. The goal here is that the sheriff enforces the law when he sees fit. Not everyone is treated the same in this community. The sheriff is a tyrant. This goes beyond injustice to a much darker place.
Step three: Create a character who is negatively affected by this situation. Why is this character singled out? How is this character singled out? Make the character compelling so your reader empathizes with him/her.
Step four: Now write the story of this character trying to overthrow the tyrannical sheriff. By any. Means. Necessary. And don’t be afraid to let your character fail. Sometimes, tyranny wins out.
When you’re done, revise what you have. If it feels fine as a short story, send it out to publications! If it feels like it could be a book, turn it into a book! And next time you decide to write something with Justice as a theme, always remember: it’s one thing for your protagonist to confront injustice … it’s a whole other ballgame when the entire concept is defined by the antagonist.
Title: The Terrifying Tyranny of Gentrification