The City and The Academy

Displacement takes place in an alternate present—not our world, but not too far off, either—and a good chunk of it is at a New England prep school I simply refer to as The Academy.” It’s a very white, very straight, very privileged place, for characters who are themselves at the very least white and privileged. Their adoptive father, billionaire philanthropist J. Patton Goldmark,” moved the family—Jamie, Lizzie, and Jack—up there to be nearer to the family estate,” (or so he claims). It’s a jarringly homogeneous place, especially for Jamie and Lizzie, a couple of queer kids used to the cultural melting pot of the city they grew up in.

“The cafeteria menu is adequate, but a little lacking. When you’re feeding four hundred students, the flavor palette tends to become a little…democratized.

It’s a place that’s really informed by the cultural collisions of my own WASP-y upbringing in an increasingly multicultural area. I grew up in what, in retrospect, was a pretty wealthy suburb (these days it’s an unambiguously rich suburb, but it was subtler back then to a privileged kid that didn’t know any better). Before I was born it was Very White Indeed, but it evolved as I grew up there.

What really saved it from what I like to call The Unbearable Whiteness of Being was immigration. Approaching the hand-over of Hong Kong to China in 1997, a lot of HK families emigrated, and a significant number of those families ended up in my old stomping grounds in Ontario. With them, they brought new ideas, new culture—and most importantly, new food. I live in a very white part of New Hampshire these days, and I can’t tell you how much I miss being able to go to Congee Wong and grab some XO-sauce lo bak go when I’m craving something fried and starchy. As I got older my diet shifted away from mashed potatoes, fish fingers, and freezer peas, to stir-fries, chilis, and curries (I could go on at special interest” length about curry as a global phenomenon, but I won’t because this post is really supposed to be about this novel that I wrote…? Yeah anyway).

“Here, there are trees and well-manicured brick buildings and time-stamped campus leave passes and an overwhelming sense of community—of the ‘enforced’ variety. We Don’t Talk About It is the name of the game. Hell, maybe it’s the motto, he’ll have to check the flag.

A New England Prep School is a very specific thing, one that exists at a peculiar nexus of privilege, money, and dynastic power. A lot of US presidents attended them—Calvin Coolidge, FDR, JFK, both George Bushes—and countless congresspeople and senators. I…did not. My high school was public, massively overcrowded, and a great deal more like the one the main character attends in Mouse than anything you’ll find in Displacement. But I’ve toured them, I’ve met the people who went to them (I’m married to one, in point of fact—three cheers for average-grade-raising “day students” at boarding schools!), I’ve heard the speeches at elbow-rubbing meet-and-greets, and I’ve known people who worked at them. The Academy isn’t based on any one prep school, but it borrows from a number of them, and then extrapolates what one might be like in the politically-darker and more authoritarian adjacent-reality present of the novel.

“Sure, their old high school downtown had been pretty much perpetually on the verge of disaccreditation, it didn’t have a radio lab or an arts center or tennis courts, and the ever-more-frequent protests had meant you couldn’t always get to it on foot, but nobody had thought rainbows were subversive or that the one Korean kid in junior year counted as diversity. And he kind of hates tennis anyway.

So the cultural clash from the characters’ old home in the city to their new one at The Academy is designed to chafe, make them feel a little confined, despite their white privilege. It’s a place that’s culturally monotone and needlessly repressive at times, a world much like the one they (and we) eventually have to navigate: where structures of power can both help and hinder a person with overlapping identities.

Unfortunately for them, the move from the city to The Academy turns out to be the least of their problems…

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Tune back in Friday for more Displacement news, and don’t forget to come back every Saturday for excerpts as I count down to February 11!

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