Shortlisted for the 2017 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
“Simeon Marsalis’s As Lie Is to Grin is not a satire meant to teach us lessons, nor a statement of hope or despair, but something more visionarya portrait of a young man’s unraveling, a depiction of how race shapes and deforms us, a coming-of-age story that is also a confrontation with American history and amnesia. The book achieves more in its brief span than most books do at three times the length.” Zachary Lazar, author of I Pity the Poor Immigrant
David, the narrator of Simeon Marsalis’s singular first novel, is a freshman at the University of Vermont who is struggling to define himself against the white backdrop of his school. He is also mourning the loss of his New York girlfriend, whose grandfather’s alma mater he has chosen to attend. When David met Melody, he lied to her about who he was and where he lived, creating a more intriguing story than his own. This lie haunts and almost unhinges him as he attempts to find his true voice and identity.
On campus in Vermont, David imagines encounters with a student from the past who might represent either Melody’s grandfather or Jean Toomer, the author of the acclaimed Harlem Renaissance novel Cane (1923). He becomes obsessed with the varieties of American architecture “upon land that was stolen,” and with the university’s past and attitudes as recorded in its newspaper, The Cynic. And he is frustrated with the way the Internet and libraries are curated, making it difficult to find the information he needs to make connections between the university’s history, African American history, and his own life.
In New York, the previous year, Melody confides a shocking secret about her grandfather’s student days at the University of Vermont. When she and her father collude with the intent to meet David’s mother in Harlemcraving what they consider an authentic experience of the black worldtheir plan ends explosively. The title of this impressive and emotionally powerful novel is inspired by Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask” (1896): “We wear the mask that grins and lies . . .”
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
August 27, 2010
I was up late into the evening, researching the University of Vermont, where I was enrolled for the fall semester. I feared that my college decision had been made under false pretenses. This belief was causing me a great deal of discomfort, so I had gone on the school's website to convince myself it was not true, when I stumbled on a page entitled "Student Dissent." It began with an introduction"1969, to the delight of many students and chagrin of many alumnae, Kake Walk was interred"that reminded me of a novel I had tried to compose (and was now attempting to forget). I opened my notebook to the prologue and six subsequent chapters. They were all incomplete. Each semiautobiographical sketch muddled the line between my life and my fiction. I could not find meaning in the one or the otherdid not divine a reason to resolve my real issues by way of text. I closed the notebook and looked back to the phone, as I had interpreted this connection as a sign to continue reading. The bulk of the article consisted of three alumni biographies. Crystal joined a sorority in 1947 and was made a dissenting student when the national organization decided to disband the chapter for granting a black woman the right to pledge. Bonnie attended from 1969 to 1973 and helped to oust the Army's ROTC program from campus. Carmen graduated in 1992 and feared that the push for multiculturalism she initiated with her fellow students in the early '90s had not amounted to any change at all. As the record became increasingly futile, I was distracted by a sound from the road. The lights of a car flashed into my window. Everything went temporarily white. I pulled the blinds closed and made sure my door was bolted. The front gate opened. Footsteps descended the staircase. There was a knock at my bedroom door, but I did not answer. My sleep patterns were interrupted by cloudy dreams. I left in the morning, without rousing my mother.
September 1, 2010
There was a copy of the school newspaper at the end of a long table in the student center, dated August 31, 2010. I flipped the paper open and spilled some coffee on the page 1 article. It gave information about my classfourteen countries, forty states, 10 percent ALANA (Asian American, Latino, African American, Native American, and Multiracial)and made me feel part of some experiment that was in its beginning stages. I passed the article about the ROTC fitness test result and realized that Bonnie's efforts to ban the Army program had been temporarily effective. On the next page there was an article entitled "SGA President Pushes for Transparent Registration: Book Prices and Syllabuses to Be Made Available Earlier."
The president was looking above his head to the left, typing at a computer screen. His mouth was slightly open and his skin stood out against the walls around him. Just inside a room on the other side of the building I was now sitting in, our Student Government Association's president had had his picture taken. I could not avoid feeling there was something important about this article that I was missing. I left the cafeteria in a haze and continued down College Street to South Willard Street, which became North, and stopped at number 42; two brown-haired men were smoking a joint on the porch.
"Is Mark here?"
"He's in the living room."
Three couches lined the walls. There were glasses and coffee mugs full of brown liquids on all of the surfaces, along with muddy clothes strewn on the floor. Two stripes, one red and one blue, were painted around the bedroom doorways, wrapped into the kitchen, and ended in a purple blob. I heard footsteps coming down the stairs.
"What's up?" As he went to hug me, our cheeks touched, and I felt his smile, unnecessarily wide, against my face. He had been my group leader for orientation in the spring, and we bonded over smoking weed, which Mark assumed I did. He pulled a bong out from behind the couch, calling the two men from the porch, and introduced me to Matt and Luke from Massachusetts and Maryland.
"Jimmy signed the lease. We call it the Rib Shack."
"Yeah, it's called Jimmy's Rib Shack. You have to meet him, dude. He's fucking crazy. We don't know if Tom-Tom is coming back."
"Didn't I tell you about him?" Mark rose as he was speaking and sped through the hallway to the kitchen, returning with four twelve-ounce cans of 4 percent beer decorated with an American flag. "You may be able to crash in his bedroom. There are two upstairs, two more in here, one attached to the kitchen, five in total." But Jimmy had not returned after two hours, so I finished my beer and excused myself from the Rib Shack, after taking two shots of whiskey from a plastic 1.75-liter container.
Walking down Pearl Street, past the liquor outlet and tattoo parlor, perspiration gathered on my chest. It had hovered around 80 degrees all day. I passed a salon where women stood braiding hair, heading toward the walking path that wound around Lake Champlain for miles. I looked down at my phone and typed, "Population, Burlington Vermont, jobs," and found some business "quick facts" from the 2007 census. "Women-owned firms 25%, Black-owned firms 1.3%, American Indian and Native Alaskan–owned firms S"which, I decided, meant too small a number to count. I turned left, looking south at the glass façade of the ecological center with its two rectangular wings. One of them had a design resembling a giant eyeball from the distance. As my gaze shifted right, I saw that the sky was turning vibrant pink behind the Adirondacks. The town was flanked by two mountain ranges. As I left the walking path and went back up the hill toward the Green Mountains of Vermont, the campus seemed to be encircled by a translucent bubble. I was sure the image was an illusion brought on by the diminishing light and the cones in my eyes, but when I blinked the mirage did not go away.