Professor ‘reverses roles’ of 1960s Chicago with new novel


Wesley Herold

Shawn Shiflett, associate professor in the Creative Writing Department and 1976 alumnus, based his recently published novel ‘Hey Liberal!’ on personal experiences in a predominantly black school during the 1960s.

By Campus Reporter

With parents involved in the Civil Rights Movement and his experience of being the minority white person at his school, Shawn Shiflett, associate professor in the Creative Writing Department and 1976 Columbia alumnus, used his past to create the narrative of his second novel, “Hey, Liberal!”

Based on true events, “Hey, Liberal!” follows the journey of a 13-year-old white male in Chicago attending a predominantly black school during the 1960s.

“It was an experience I had in ‘68, about a year after Martin Luther King was  assassinated, so it was the basis of it all…If you want to see what it was like at one of the most angry times in our history to go to high school like that, this is a good book to read,” Shiflett said. 

Tony Trigilio, interim chair of the Creative Writing Department,  said while other writers tend to focus on structure and language, Shiflett is interested in the social and cultural context of his stories.

“His work is very much invested in the present moment, but also in American history,” Trigilio said. “It’s even more valuable if a writer is doing what Shawn is doing, which is caring about the craft of the writing, but also caring about the world it exists in.”

Growing up with activist parents—his mother, Betty Shiflett, is also known for helping to create Columbia’s fiction writing program in the 1970s—Shiflett said he has always had an interest in cultural clashes and racism. His father was a Presbyterian minister who marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., before he gained national notoriety.  Shiflett included a letter King wrote to his father in his book as historical context.

Shiflett said his father was in Albany, Georgia, during what is now known as “The Albany Movement.” He explained how his father and 47 other ministers drove down on the freedom bus with the intent of getting arrested for protesting against Jim Crow laws, where they went on a hunger strike and spent six days in jail.

Robert McDonald-—event coordinator of the Book Stall—a Winnetka, Illinois, bookstore where Shiflett held a Sept. 10 reading—said he was happy to have Shiflett share his story.

“Race is the topic of our time. We like to believe we’re much more advanced than we were back then, but that’s very often not the case in terms of issues of race in America today, so [‘Hey, Liberal!’] is a really timely and important book in that respect,” McDonald said.

Shiflett said that his experience growing up in the ‘60s was an important story to tell.

“I felt like no one was hearing it,” Shiflett said. “There was no story about a reverse role where someone white is in the minority, and I thought that was a unique story.”

Shifflet said it took about four decades to create “Hey, Liberal!” He advised students and aspiring writers to remain persistent with their work. 

“I wasn’t the most talented person; I just knew how to persevere and persevere, and that’s unteachable,” Shiflett said. “Someone either has that in them, or they don’t. Tell a good story, everything else will take care of itself.”