In Wilkinson’s debut novel, American Spy (Random House, Feb.), FBI agent Marie Mitchell accepts an assignment aimed at destabilizing the Communist government of Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso.
Why did you choose to write a spy novel?
I started out with wanting to write a black female spy, because I wanted to create a character I didn’t see growing up but wished I had. As I continued to work on the novel, the spy genre started to feel like a natural metaphor for what W.E.B. Du Bois calls the “double consciousness.” Spies must constantly be vigilant about how they’re perceived and must also be aware of the ways in which this perception is in conflict with their own self-perception.
What do you see as the barriers Marie faces in seeing herself as fully American?
I think she’s struggling with a sense of her double self: the black person and the American. Or her triple self, as when Marie is in spaces where she’s secure in the perception of her blackness, they’re often male-dominated, and so she must figure out a way to contextualize herself within the limits of patriarchy instead.
What books informed American Spy most directly, and in what manner?
I namecheck several of the novels that inspired me most directly in the novel, which may be obnoxious, but I did want to acknowledge them, because I felt I owed these books a debt. They include Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and Passing by Nella Larsen, because of what they articulate about identity and about double and triple consciousness. There’s also The Spook Who Sat by the Door by Sam Greenlee, which is a story about a black former CIA agent who uses the things the agency taught him to start a revolution. And I mention John le Carré, because I was inspired by the difficult morality of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
Similarly, Marie comes to question her loyalties once she’s been in Burkina Faso—where do you think patriotism for one’s country ends?
If you’re not treated as if you’re fully entitled to the benefits of a country, or if you can’t trust the country to apply the rule of its law to you and to the people who look like you in an equitable and methodical manner, then your loyalty to it comes into question. I think it falters there—in the moment you realize you’ve been unquestioningly loyal to a country that isn’t loyal to you.
How do you see Marie’s experience as a black woman in America as contrasting with the African revolutionaries she meets abroad?
While working on this novel, I became very interested in what motivates a revolutionary leader. They must have an incredible amount of confidence in their vision, and I couldn’t fully conceptualize such total self-assurance. And Marie—as a product of what might be a limit of my imagination—can’t either. So that’s the difference that I tried to create between her and the revolutionaries she meets.