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Novelist Visualizes Houston's Past, And Its Future

Author Attica Locke talks during a boat ride passing through downtown Houston on Buffalo Bayou.
Nicole Beemsterboer, NPR
Author Attica Locke talks during a boat ride passing through downtown Houston on Buffalo Bayou.
Downtown bridges span Houston's Buffalo Bayou.
Nicole Beemsterboer / NPR
Downtown bridges span Houston's Buffalo Bayou.

The city of Houston is in a constant state of change. More than a million people will move to this sprawling metropolis this decade alone. But amid the new houses and freeways, one thing remains the same: a brown ribbon of water that cuts the city in two, snaking underneath overpasses and trusses, bending around areas of affluence and poverty until it meets the Port of Houston.

Buffalo Bayou is a place writer Attica Locke knows well.

"Its picturesque, but it's also a little creepy," she says. "There are legends of alligators and all kinds of strange creatures down here."

Locke grew up in Houston, but as a child she avoided the Buffalo Bayou, preferring to view it from a safe distance. But a family outing down the muddy river would prove the inspiration for her first book, Black Water Rising.

Locke says that even now, decades later, there's a part of her that's scared to go down to the bayou.

A Childhood Trip

Locke remembers the trip well. It was late at night, and their boat had traveled well away from downtown Houston and into an area that almost seemed abandoned.

"There were no buildings," she remembers. "It was all brush — and we heard a woman screaming for help. And it was so black outside that we could not tell where the sound was even coming from. And then we heard a gunshot."

Then, she remembers, there was an argument about what to do.

"My father's first instinct was to protect his family, to protect his daughter and his wife. And my dad's best friend said, 'No. We've got a moral obligation to stop this boat and help this woman.' "

This question of what to do was the inspiration for Black Water Rising.

Locke's family decided to call the police.

Locke's main character did not.

"The book takes that incident and says, well, what would have happened if somebody jumped in this muddy water and tried to find some woman who was in trouble," she says.

Houston, Texas, 1981

Locke says her book's main character is not her father. But the literary Jay Porter and real-life Gene Locke have much in common. Both are African-American lawyers, former activists, and both have been charged with crimes for which they were acquitted.

For Porter, this means he does not trust the authorities. "He is really struggling with a kind of paranoia," says Locke. "There is a way in which he owns the script for what it is to be a black man in 1981 Houston, Texas."

Locke was born in Houston in 1974. "And I think the book in some ways is my attempt to understand the people who raised me," she says, "people who were transitioning out of this kind of heady political activism into the Reagan '80s.

"I was born in the transition. To me, my whole life is the transition out of a segregated American into an integrated America."

Houston, Texas, 2009

Locke now lives and works in Los Angeles. But she still thinks of Houston as the "warmest place I know, literally and figuratively." And the author thinks the city has gone through the process of dealing with its past.

"My hope for the city, as it would be for the country, is that there would be an ability to hold a contradiction, that you could hold both the ugliness of the past with the optimism of a future. That both could be true."

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