Back in September 2015, we published “Remotely Controlled Cars,” a short story by Kashana Cauley, which reveals the thoughts of a black police officer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—Cauley grew up in nearby Madison—as he and his partner attempt to locate and arrest a man suspected of armed robbery. The story takes the reader with the officers as they drive at high speeds along a highway, looking to quickly find the suspect before he evades them.
Now a regular columnist for Catapult, Cauley’s nonfiction delves into the intersections of race, class, and culture. Thoughtful and challenging, Cauley’s essays present and interrogate issues that matter personally to her, pushing the reader to reexamine his own perspective on a given topic—the origins of the clothing company Banana Republic’s name, for instance—and perhaps walk away entertained by Cauley’s sharp humor and deft prose.
I chatted with Kashana Cauley via Google Hangouts, where we discussed her story, her column, the reaction her work has generated, as well as the role social media plays for the writer.
Mensah Demary: Your first contribution to Catapult was your story “Remotely Controlled Cars,” which we published during our launch. It's still one of my personal favorites. If you don't mind, talk a little about the story, why you wrote it, and what you think about it a year later.
Kashana Cauley: On a trip back to Wisconsin, one of my cousins mentioned going to a tech conference where one of the inventions that was showcased involved, quite literally, giving cops the ability to remotely control cars. I got hooked on that idea and how it might be used in practice. The other part of that story is a look at policing in plurality-black Milwaukee, which remains a contentious issue, given last month's protests after an “officer-involved shooting” and the black Milwaukee County Sheriff's appearance at the GOP, where he stated both that blue lives matter and that the organization Black Lives Matter was a terrorist group. When I lived there, my black friends were often pulled over in white neighborhoods and questioned as to why they were there. But Milwaukee's so black that there are tons of black cops, so I started thinking about what it might be like to be a conflicted black cop there, policing a heavily black population in ways that might conflict with their personal blackness.
A year later, “Remotely Controlled Cars” still feels very relevant to me, especially because a number of black cops across the country have given interviews about both how much they enjoy their jobs and want to do them well, but also how they agree with Black Lives Matter in the sense that they want to make sure they're policing black people fairly. I’m also still happy with the amount of internal conflict the cop endures in that story, as well as the sometimes extreme ways in which he expresses it.
Mensah Demary: One of the best parts of the story was, in addition to the internal conflict, the violence: He beats up a tree instead of a suspect, trying to exorcise that violence from his body. The whole story had this tension where it felt like at any time, the cop could snap and assault the suspect.
Did you at any point consider having the cop actually play out that violence against another person?
Kashana Cauley: I did, but if he's violent to another person, he gets fired or placed on desk duty, whether I put that ending in the story or not, and the story becomes less interesting because his conflict is, in a way, neatly resolved. The stronger conflict really seemed to be how he could live with his violent tendencies in a job that encourages or at least tolerates a certain amount of violence.
Mensah Demary: And to that point, he mentions quitting drinking when he became a cop but, by the time we see him in the story, something has already shifted, and he's considering drinking again.
Kashana Cauley: Putting the alcohol bit in felt like an acknowledgement of one of the many types of personal conflict that can arise once someone has acknowledged they feel conflicted about an area of life as important as their job.
Mensah Demary: Since “Remotely Controlled Cars” appeared, you’ve become a regular columnist for Catapult. Your column “explores the intersection of class and culture” in your life. Was there any particular reason you wanted to tackle these topics, ranging from feminism to hipsterdom ?
Kashana Cauley: I’ve had the unusual experience of occupying a number of social classes, and when talking about class issues with people, I started noticing myself having reactions to those issues that were expressed rarely, if at all, in news coverage. In particular, there’s not that much exploration of issues affecting classes below the middle class that doesn’t note the essayist or reporter’s distance from that socioeconomic level in some way. And with regard to the hipster piece, a lot of millennial analysis is coming from older people who seem completely unaware of what financial issues that generation faces and are unwilling to acknowledge how much younger people’s financial difficulties have shaped their behavior.
Mensah Demary: Do you strive to change minds when you approach a topic in your column? Or is it more personal that that, a self-investigation that considers and engages the larger world?
Kashana Cauley: I aim to tell entertaining, partially personal, partially data-based and fact-driven stories that, if the reader wants, will give them a different way of looking at a corner of the world.
Mensah Demary: In general, what's been the feedback or responses you've received in regard to your column?
Kashana Cauley: There’s usually a mix: People who personally identify with some aspect of it, like the Great Lakes Accent column , where I heard from lots of other native Midwesterners as well as people who lack the accent of their native region for some of the cultural reasons I refer to in that piece; people who are happy to hear a perspective they’d never considered on class or culture; people familiar with some of the history I discuss that want to talk about it; people who think I’m crazy for an infinite variety of reasons.
Mensah Demary: Your column “Feminism's Class Divide” is a popular piece that is still read. Laura Miller, columnist for Slate , singled out the piece in a related column of her own. She disagreed with your views on second-wave feminism, but I think others have responded to it positively.
Kashana Cauley: Yes. I heard from a lot of people who are quite sick of the sort of capitalist feminism that would prefer to sell us feminist goods, and afraid, given our current political climate, that women are losing rights like abortion and contraception access, and are in danger of losing more.
Mensah Demary: You're becoming a popular presence on Twitter , with biting humor that isn’t devoid of perspective or nuance. What would you say to a writer who believes his or her path to success—book deals, assignment opportunities—hinges on his or her success on Twitter?
Kashana Cauley: I would tell that person to make sure that they’re primarily focused on their writing and that they are finding a way to enjoy Twitter, if they’re on it, that has nothing to do with how much success they think they’ll find by tweeting. While Twitter can be a great place to make friends and meet other writers and editors, the writing industry wants to make sure you’re a good writer before they hit you up for work.