Author Michelle Stimpson has become a regular visitor to the University of Oregon School of Law. Stimpson is a national bestselling, award-winning author of more than 50 books and 50 short stories. For the past three years, she has been discussing her work with law students taking Race, Gender, Bias & Law (LAW 745), a course taught by Yvette Alex-Assensoh, the university’s Vice President for Equity and Inclusion. Alex-Assensoh is the creator of the L.A.C.E. Framework, an approach to personal and professional interactions that foregrounds love, authenticity, courage, and empathy.
Earlier this spring, Stimpson sat down with Jen Reynolds, an associate dean at the law school, to talk about racial justice, difficult conversations, and the role of fiction in seeking truth and building community.
JR: What drew you to writing fiction?
MS: I’ve always been creative, and my fiction writing started with journals. My mom was in a terrible car accident when I was 12. For four years I was the mom of the family, physically and emotionally. My dad worked two jobs to keep us afloat. During that time, I started mad crazy journaling. I wrote down everything in my diary, from big philosophies to whole scenes from school. I wrote like this for years. It was my therapy. And it was the best preparation for writing books.
JR: How did you come to be a regular visitor at Oregon Law?
MS: I have been dealing with race in my writing for a long time. My first novel was a faith-based interracial romance. Yvette is a long-time reader of my work, and after I published Posted, she reached out to me to find out if I would come to her class. Last month was my third visit to the law school. Just like last year, it was a virtual visit.
JR: We are looking forward to you coming back to Eugene in person!
MS: I would be delighted. Working with law students is such a pleasure.
JR: Posted is a wonderful and provocative story about how difficult it can be to find common ground in a diverse society, especially when everyone is drawing from such different life experiences and ways of knowing. What were some of the student reactions to the story?
MS: During the class, we examined how the different parts of the L.A.C.E. Framework—love, authenticity, courage, and empathy—might inform how we think about what happened in this story and in similar situations in real life. It was a great discussion. The students and I struggled for a while with the L in the LACE. How does love factor into tough conversations, particularly when those conversations are ongoing in multiple places? How does love help us find closure? How does love intersect with law?
JR: Love is not usually the first thing lawyers think of when it comes to managing conflict.
MS: Right, many of us don’t think of love right away. Many of us have a bias toward immediate action and quick solutions. But real change is usually not efficient. Society tends to reward the fastest, but is that always the best approach? When we think about how to deal with ongoing issues around race, the first solution is usually not the best—and anything that stops us from engaging in dialogue, from imagining or reimagining our stories, just makes things worse. We are writing history right now. We are editing our story together.
As we have these conversations, we shouldn’t go into them with a deadline in mind. There’s a sense of urgency to talk and have conversations and enter dialogue, but we shouldn’t have the same sense of urgency about the end date for fixing everything. We are working through issues that have been with us for more than 400 years. It’s going to take time.
JR: One theme from your work is forgiveness, which can be challenging when we are talking about long-standing historical oppression. What does forgiveness look like?
MS: Forgiveness is something you give yourself. It requires just one person. For me, it’s nice if someone else is repentant or apologetic, or if they recognize the impact that their words or behavior have had on me, but even without that I need to be able to forgive. Otherwise, I will continue to relive that hurt over and over again, and that is not the best use of my energy or my life’s hours. Life is finite. Do I want to spend those hours in bondage to what that person did or said? I have found that naming stuff helps a lot—when I can say I am hurt and this is why, the pain exists and lives but is not in a spot that is going to keep me from living.
JR: But doesn’t forgiveness let wrongdoers off the hook?
MS: It can feel that way. But remember the purpose of forgiveness. Does forgiving someone give them the stamp of approval for their behavior, does it say we condone what you did? No. Forgiveness is a matter of saying you owe me, but I’m not going to make you pay the debt. You could choose to pay it, but even if you don’t, I recognize it but won’t make my life’s work to collect it.
JR: This talk of forgiveness reminds me of current concerns around “cancelling” someone you disagree with. I imagine that you are not a fan of cancel culture.
MS: It’s getting to a dangerous point. There’s something good about sending a message that we don’t accept something, but there’s also a need for the humility to recognize that at any moment we could say or do something that could be perceived as insensitive. We’re all at risk at being taken out of context and we all have blind spots and gaps in our knowledge. When someone says something hurtful, I put myself on the hotseat—how would I want to be treated if I was insensitive or ignorant, even if I shouldn’t have been ignorant? Law students should consider that as they grow in their careers, as they become more public figures, they will be opening themselves up to that same level of judgment. We need to figure out how to give honest feedback that helps people learn and grow.
JR: Speaking of law students, our law students are entering the profession at a historic moment. What advice might you give them as they write their own stories?
MS: Ask yourself: what is the best possible future I can envision? How can we get there? Think about ways to develop the culture that allow us to difficult conversations, to give people a voice. It is powerful to take time to imagine the outcomes we want, before doing anything.
Michelle’s next work, a novella entitled All I Want for Christmas, will be published as an Audible Original in December 2021. Learn more about Michelle and her work at her website.