I hope you will support, look forward to, participate in, and otherwise join this effort to help our country heal. This is wonderful work from the folks of the Equal Justice Initiative.
How did you come to this story? Or how did it come to you? The story definitely came to me. About 7 years ago now, I was reading a biography of Virginia Woolf and came across the term “slave doctor”. The words described one of Woolf’s long-gone relations and no further explanation or description of the man was given. I found myself wondering what kind of person would occupy what to me seemed an inherently conflicted role: to dedicate your life to healing and yet your patients were destined only for more and graver harm. From that initial spark of curiosity I wrote the story of Caleb Harper, a doctor working for a slave catcher, and two women appeared in his story: Josephine Bell, an artist and enslaved woman living on a Virginia tobacco farm, and Dorothea Rounds, a young white woman active on the Underground Railroad. And I was off.
You draw from the perspectives of two very different women, but both Lina and Josephine were searching. What connections do you see between these two women? They are both very strong willed, smart and adept at hiding how they feel, both from others and from themselves. Of course, the circumstances of their lives could not be more different; Lina enjoys all the privileges and freedoms that Josephine does not. I see Lina and Josephine as vertically connected rather than horizontally, if that makes any sense. Josephine is Lina’s predecessor, her mother, at least symbolically. Dresser has a line about enslaved people “They were as much our founding mothers and fathers as the bewigged white man who lay a whip upon their backs.” And that idea resonates with Lina, both historically and personally. She has very few memories of her own mother Grace and knows very little about her, but Josephine shares many of Grace’s characteristics: a talented artist, a disappearance, a lost child. At the beginning of the novel, Lina is too afraid to really search for her own mother, and so she searches for Josephine instead. Josephine gives Lina the inspiration that she needs to move forward with her life, the courage to confront her own past. And of course in the process of finding Josephine, Lina finds herself.
The novel weaves compelling insights about slavery into Josephine’s personal decision to run. What are some reasons slaves ran while others didn’t? It’s more difficult, I think, to understand the decision not to run because most slave narratives were written by (or about) those who were able to escape. But fear must have been a huge component – fear of capture and punishment. The cutting of the Achilles tendon (as happens to Nathan in the book) was commonly done to slaves who had tried to run and been recaptured. To escape also meant leaving family and friends behind, loved ones who in all likelihood you would never see again. At a time when families were routinely torn apart, to voluntarily leave one’s family must have been a very difficult decision to make. Women ran much less frequently than men because they were more likely to be caring for young children, and fleeing with a child was much harder. There were also the practical difficulties of not knowing where to go – certainly after the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, the northern US no longer offered any real prospect of ‘freedom’ and the road to Canada was very long.
You do a lot with images and art in the book. I wonder how, with the hard work behind The House Girl, you see images of slavery, historical and modern-day. It’s requires a kind of resilience and courage to know the things you likely learned in your work on the story and keep at it. Yes, there was a point at which I had to stop researching. It became very overwhelming – the scope of tragedy, the individual horrors. Antebellum art generally tended to depict idealized visions of peaceful plantation life – the myth of the benign master, the happy Negro. Many are very pretty pictures, but I couldn’t help seeing them as quite sinister given what they omit. More realistic images were created for the abolitionist movement, and these are generally horrifying. Their intent was to provoke outrage and increase support for the abolitionist cause, and I presume they were very effective. More contemporary artists have grappled with slavery in a variety of ways. I’ve personally been most effected by the work of Kara Walker who makes intricate cut-paper silhouettes of antebellum life – shocking scenes of violence and sexual exploitation, but rendered simply, starkly, with black cut-outs against a white background. They are very powerful.
Lina’s experience was peopled with men like her father, her legal mentor, and the potential lead plaintiff. What characteristics equipped her to navigate such diverse relationships? Lina is very independent and very driven. She grew up in a single-parent, poor, urban household with a father who suffered from severe depression and has never been traditionally “responsible”. As a result, she’s had to parent herself in many ways. I think this self-sufficiency, learned at an early age, helps her to operate successfully in these diverse worlds – with her father and his artist friends, in the more conservative world of the law firm, and with Jasper Battle, a musician whom she finds both very foreign and also oddly familiar, given that his world is so similar to her father’s. The corporate law world and professional art world are very different of course, but they are both arenas traditionally dominated by white men, so I think growing up in one prepared Lina in unexpected ways to succeed in the other.
In a sentence, maybe two, imagine how Lina would explain her case to her mother, how Josephine would explain slavery to her son. What a great (and really tough!) question. First, Lina to her mother: “I’m working on a lawsuit that’s seeking to repair the damage done by slavery, at least in some symbolic way. And Mom, it’s more about memory than money.” Josephine to Joseph: “We live in a world where some people own other people based on the color of their skin. But things won’t always be this way, and you don’t have to let it define you.”
Your book made me think of the many ways people experience loss—of a hope, a relationship, an ideal, a role. On the other hand, the story is one of motivated, resourceful people moving forward. Is that a fair reflection? Yes, very fair, and thank you for it. For me, the characteristic that binds all the characters together is their willingness to face and ultimately overcome their fears. For Josephine, the fear of running, of leaving everyone and everything she knows. For Lina, the fear of discovering the truth about her mother and, by necessity, the truth about her father as well. For Caleb, his fear of caring, of investing himself in another person; and Dorothea, fear of rebelling against her father and of once again putting her faith in something large than herself. So they are all moving forward, as you say, trying to push past these fears as best they can.
There are two very striking things I’d love you to say more about. First, the musical list of names in Lina’s index. Second, the notion of celebrating and honoring slaves who have died in slavery. The list was particular, poignant, thorough, and considerate. The comment, a summation of the novel. Say more about how those emerged. Thank you for them. The list was culled from the more than 2,000 names of some of the last surviving slaves whose testimonies were taken in the 1930s under the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The testimonies are available on the Library of Congress website; it’s an amazing resource that I would encourage readers to explore. I included the names for a couple of reasons. First, Josephine’s story is very circumscribed – one day in the life of one woman on one small farm in Virginia. Her position as a house slave and the close relationship she has with her mistress, Lu Ann Bell, makes Josephine’s experience somewhat uncharacteristic, I believe. Given Josephine’s exceptionalism, I thought I would be remiss in not acknowledging, at least to some degree, the vast scope of slavery’s tragedy. I wanted the reader to be hit with the physical presence of those names – a solid page of text – and feel, for a moment, disoriented and overwhelmed. And second, before I started researching in earnest, I believed that there was a national monument or a national museum dedicated to memorializing enslaved Americans. I don’t know where this belief came from – I just assumed that such a thing must exist, and I was surprised to learn that it doesn’t. There is no national memorial or museum (although the National Museum of African American History and Culture is slated to open in 2015). I was thinking of the power of naming and how important that is in honoring the victims of a particular tragedy – for example, the inscriptions on the Vietnam War Memorial, or the reading of names after 9/11. I wanted Lina’s chart to serve as something similar, although of course on a much reduced scale.
What are you reading these days? The pile beside my bed is groaning – I’ve got so many waiting in line. I just finished two wonderful novels: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, which I loved and The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, which I also loved. Now I’m just about to dive into Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – I’ve been waiting for this one for awhile. I still remember scenes from her Half of a Yellow Sun, which I read a good number of years ago.
How can readers follow you and support your work? You can find me at www.taraconklin.com, on facebook and twitter @TEConklin. I love to hear from readers and regularly participate in book club discussions via Skype or phone so feel free to get in touch.
There was a good deal of work done in the novel—building, journeying, selling, making, cooking and so forth. Is it fair to say that work was a central character, a natural character? In what ways were some of the people deepened (or even made) by their work?
I love this question, in part because I did so much research about work and some did not make it into the novel! I learned about shoeing a horse and had an entire chapter in which Henry and Jacob shoe Caesar (Henry’s horse) but I cut it—a digression. People in the nineteenth century, especially an adventurer like Henry, enslaved people such as Uncle Eli and Mittie Ann, and even Emma, who was tutored in how to keep house—did a great deal of work, whether it was making a new dress or picking cotton or carving out a canoe or preparing for market, as the Iyalode (the female governor) does when Emma meets her in West Africa. Not all of these forms of work were equally difficult or equally rewarded. But there was a lot of what might be called “hand” work—not typing on keys as we do at computers, but making, growing, mending, clearing land, building houses, thatching roofs (in Africa). There is so little for Emma and Henry to purchase. Most of what they have they must manage to make. Yoruba people (the clan in the area where my characters travel) were “makers” of cloth, art, metal works, jewelry, hair weaving!
Your insight is absolutely apropos. Henry already is who he is (by the time he and Emma marry) because of what he has made, built, written, battled. Enslaved Uncle Eli maintains his spirituality and some selfness because he can still create out of his own imagination. Emma becomes who she is in her three African years because she learns African forms of work, including mixing mud for her house by kneading it with her feet. In this way, Africa enters her and begins to reshape her imagination and her heart.
The Bowmans were driven people. The same can probably be said of many people in the novel. For the couple, what pushed them? What pulled them?
There are shorter and longer answers. Henry is pushed by guilt and longing. He feels guilty about his mother’s death (not because he caused it but because children internalize their parents’ pain). He is guilty of killing Native Americans and Mexicans. He was a womanizer as a young man. He “wants to be shed of all that,” as a character in Huckleberry Finn might say. He experiences a salvific moment on the road back to Georgia when a man brings him fish and water. That scene was written so that the reader might imagine it as an angelic visitation. Henry sees it that way. He is “convicted,” in the language of Southern Baptists. Going to Africa to “witness” about Jesus is his way of working through guilt. It takes him a good while, as you know.
Emma is pulled and pushed by desire and by outrage. Uncle Eli, the old African, plants a seed in her imagination from the time she is very young. He “initiates” her into Yoruba numerology and Ifa divination in his use of the number 4. He tells her stories that shape her mind and when she sees the globe on her father’s desk, she is drawn to Africa. She doesn’t understand the connection, of course, but I hope readers begin to discern it. Her African epiphany originates in Uncle Eli, who sends her on a mission that happens to be Christian (it is a mission of love) though his purposes are born out of his remembrance of African traditional religion. She is pushed, of course, out of horror at what her father allows to happen to Uncle Eli. She cannot stay in “bent” Georgia. Its violence toward enslaved people is a fire she runs from.
Emma laments trading places with Uncle Eli. How does her relationship with the elder slave tutor her in her life in Eli’s homeland?
As I’ve said, his influence is a driving force in her going to West Africa. Once she arrives, and little by little, she opens herself to the mysteries and beauties of Yorubaland. At first, of course, she is a bit horrified: by women whose clothing doesn’t cover their breasts, or men eating with their fingers. But her mind is fertile. She is curious. I molded her as a girl to prefer the outdoors, to take risks (horseback riding, for example) and added to this her relation to the old man. She wants to know things, in part because Uncle Eli was always doing things she wanted to understand. He was her mystery and her guru. So while she is not consciously aware of it, all through her African journeys, she is able to make the next leap (whether it’s eating fufu or wearing a more airy, African-like dress, or even entertaining the idea of an African diviner being of some use to her) because of her closeness to the old man. She is multi-cultural before multi-cultural was in! But this is American history. Take Huckleberry Finn again as an example. As much as Huck thinks he is superior to Jim, he is actually being tutored by Jim, in love especially, but in other practical matters of survival as well. The way they eat and live on the raft and hide in the day and move at night, the stories Huck learns from Jim: all of that is Huck becoming “black”—or multi-cultural.
At any early point in the story the preacher tells his wife that she is a guest in Africa. Does she believe him? Does she begin to see things that way as she follows Eli’s counsel to “find a place”? Does she see things differently as the story is told?
No and yes. At first she cannot comprehend her own foreignness. She thinks Africans are strange; they are the strangers. She is “normal,” and her expectations are “normal.” In her view, these folks should know better than to meddle with her laundry. But she is, of course, meddling in their culture! She is trying to change their religious views. She is taking their handicrafts and decorating her house with them. She is tutoring their children in English. I do admire her (and her historical counter-part) for learning Yoruba and for recording the language. Later missionaries did not always take such pains to learn the local language. As we know, language is a primary way by which we learn to see the world. The more she learns Yoruba, the more she comprehends what her neighbors know, what the Iyalode knows, for example. So through this learning, she begins to comprehend differently. There’s a scene with the Iya in which Emma thinks she is giving the woman a lesson in geography. But as it turns out, the Iya is the one who understands Emma’s situation better than Emma does. The Iyalode comprehends Emma’s pregnancy! And Emma begins to see how she is seen. This is a major moment in Emma’s development: beginning to see herself from an African’s point of view. This seeing-herself-as-stranger culminates with Jacob. She dallies a little with him and entertains romantic notions. But she doesn’t really SEE him or herself-in-relation-to-him, from HIS point of view, until he rebuffs her. Then she sees. And then, of course, she sees her entire history, all the way back to Uncle Eli’s toes.
Your book is sweeping in its delivery of several characters whose pasts and lives are so different on the surface. And they come together in the novel, often, to form or re-form one another’s faith. Can you speak to that?
My vision is trans-Atlantic because I was born in Nigeria and grew up there, visiting the U.S. on occasion, until I came here to live permanently as a young adult. Everything for me is about the cross-fertilization between the American South and West Africa. This is the story I want to tell over and over, whether in a short memoir about hair (Nigerian girl’s hair, my hair) or crimes of history or personal redemption. This novel is an orchestra composed out of the melodies and stories and tragedies of my life, my mother’s life, my people’s lives (whether those people are my Yoruba countrymen, my slave-owning ancestors, my missionary “family”). The trans-Atlantic South is my homeland.
You have personal history so that your story and your life in Africa undoubtedly helped you frame some things. Did your work on the novel enrich or change your views of missionary work?
Actually writing this novel constitutes “Stage 3” in my perspective on missionary life. As a girl (Stage 1), I simply thought it was normal: all white people were missionaries and there were only a few of them and the world itself was black people. I thought my parents were good people (they were good people; my mother an educator, my father a business man; my mother wrote a history of the Nigerian Baptist Convention—not the American Baptist Convention). And yet as a graduate student and young professor studying post-colonialism and feminism, I became deeply skeptical about missions. This was Stage 2. I was embarrassed by my history. Writing this novel, I came to see missionaries as human beings who struggle just as anyone struggles: with conscience, longing, desire, hope, guilt, despair. Mission work in Africa is a mixed bag. Perhaps it has been primarily negative. I haven’t done enough research to be an authority on the entire continent. But look here: Nelson Mandela is Methodist. Am I going to tell him he has false consciousness because he doesn’t practice traditional African religion? Perhaps he does in his own way. All religions migrate just as cultures do. There is good and bad in all of it. The great crime of slavery was sometimes “covered” in the U.S. by appeal to the Bible! My characters go to Africa trying to do something else. They may be wrong-headed, but they are trying. I think my mother and father did the same. I won’t judge their lives. How can I?
Can you comment on the connections between your life as a writer and as a teacher? Do the two areas naturally feed one another? Do you experience the roles in any particular way?
I joke that teaching keeps me young. I look out at the classroom and see myself in my students and think I’m still 23. Ha! But teaching does keep me young. I try to stay abreast of what much younger folks are thinking about and talking about. At least I get half way across the divide, which is farther than I would get if I weren’t teaching. I keep being challenged and pushed when I teach, graduate students and undergraduates. Teaching offers me an opportunity to pass-it-forward. I can’t possibly repay all the teachers and mentors I have had in my life, including the Yoruba folks who took care of me when I was a girl. Sometimes I would like to teach less (I carry a 2/2 load). But N.C. State University offers great support for my writing. Though I was hired to teach literature, I am given travel money and research support to go to Nigeria and spend a summer month at a writing residency and compose a novel over a six-year span. University teaching is one of the greatest privileges a person can have in my view.
I wonder if you can talk a little about the writing box or about remembering. There is a powerful thread in the story when the characters, particularly Emma Bowman, return to the question of what will be taken with them and what will be left behind.
It’s interesting to me that you link these two: remembering and the writing box. I love the way a reader can show a writer what she did! Of course, Uncle Eli’s gift of the letter opener (his effigy) is linked with his admonition “remember; you find a place.” This admonition haunts Emma even as the letter opener comforts her. I intended that the reader understand that even as Emma is doing just what Uncle Eli asked, she doesn’t fully understand HOW she is following his instruction until the end of the novel when she understands his remembrance. He was remembering his homeland, teaching her about it; she travels to his homeland, unaware, and finally comes to see–“as if face to face”–that the old man was from this very place. So Uncle Eli’s memory is a force in the novel. I believe that memory is essential to practicing peace and justice. If we do not remember the past and honor it, how can we begin to establish a more just society in the present? We must remember slavery, Jim Crow, the genocide of Native Americans. I hope readers find a poetic irony in Emma’s bearing this memory; she is a daughter of white privilege. But when she steps outside of her known world and becomes the foreigner, she is able to see the light she thought she was bearing. And she was bearing it; she just didn’t fully comprehend it. The box is Emma’s heart, of course: the vault of memory and desire.
What are you reading these days?
I just read White Dog Fell from the Sky by Eleanor Morse, a wonderful novel about apartheid South Africa, and next on my list is Wash by Margaret Wrinkle, a novel about an enslaved man in Tennessee in the early 1800s who survives through a spiritual connection to his shamanic mother. Margaret and I are going to be on a panel together at the Atlanta Journal Constitution/Decatur Book Fair over Labor Day. You can see what I’m in to.
How can readers stay in touch with you and support what you’re putting in your own “writing box”?
My website is elaineneilorr.net
I love for readers to “friend” me either on my personal Facebook page or my author page; I like to see what they are doing. I’m happy to Skype in to book clubs. My email is on my website; it’s email@example.com
First, I should tell you that I’m the guy who insisted that my wife and I visit a rice plantation turned bed and breakfast. Note that as I bring my latest find.
I read this article on The Root and heard for the first time about the President’s House. The House is the first White House, if you will, across from the Liberty Bell, where our nation’s first two Presidents lived. John Adams moved after two years to DC. George Washington governed from there for eight years but broke up his time in Philadelphia with trips to Mount Vernon–in part to ensure that he could rotate his slaves from place to place and legally prevent their freedom. I want to visit the place for the following reasons.
- The House tells a story that’s easily forgotten. I’ve written on this blog about our country’s convenient amensia, particularly when it comes to the history of Black folks. While it’s a part of the controversial backstory leading to this exhibit, the story of who were slaves and who owned slaves is a critical one to me personally and to our nation corporately.
- Access to history is completely and uniquely open. The exhibit is accessible 24 hours a day. It’s outside, doesn’t require admission or a visit inside hours of operation. There aren’t many places and ways for folks to encounter history this way. Visitors have unrestrained access to video and printed material in order to learn.
- Stories surround the place. Voices surround the place. For those reasons, the budding novelist in me is very interested in putting my feet on the grounds. I’ve visited places that turn up in my yet-to-be-published stories because it, somehow, helps me. It revives my imagination. It connects me to people I can’t see and helps me listen to stories that are powerful and neglected and scary.
- I love the controversy of the House. History is complicated and messy and tricky, and I love the very idea of talking to people about the place. I smile at the idea of finding the nearest street vendor in Philadelphia or the closest spot for tea and starting up a conversation about the President’s House. I want to hear what folks from Philly think of the exhibit, whether they’re excited about it.