Yesterday was my day to get feedback on some manuscript pages. Much was very positive (always nice to hear) — the prose was “vivid” “raw,” “transporting,” with credible characters. The rapes described: ‘disturbing without being gratuitous’ (but would they have used the word ‘rape’? – good question).
The more critical feedback addressed some of the ongoing difficulties. These difficulties are listed below in no particular order:
1). It’s my first attempt at writing a novel. 2). There’ve been some ongoing (sometimes heartbreaking) caretaking responsibilities during these same years. 3). Voice. Voice. Voice. 4). Race. Race. Race. 5). Tempo (is this section too interior? have I spent too much time describing the light?)
Voice goes to research and it goes to structure and it goes to race (including but not limited to problems of cultural appropriation) and it may be the single biggest ongoing challenge I face. If I ever dump the project (and believe me, I consider it often), this will be the reason.
To put it another way: How, as a white suburban Yankee in the 2000’s, do I craft a southern landscape with authentic (or at least not mortally offensive) white and black characters set in the mid-eighteenth century?
I chose to tell the Eliza Lucas Pinckney chapters in first person and the bondwomen sections in third person close. I didn’t think I could pull off first person for the enslaved characters, a decision that seems alternately respectful and cowardly. Even third person close is very very hard. Until a professional asks me to revisit these two overarching decisions, I’m sticking with them.
But, can I rethink the complete absence of an omniscient narrator? Not having one means that historic conditions have to be explained vis-a-vis the characters. It can be cumbersome. Plus, I’m denied any opportunity to make modern observations about human bondage (which, in the thick of things, believe me, I do really want to make).
Some historic junk I’ve assimilated so thoroughly that it flows into the narrative easily and then the issue is — does my reader understand what I’m talking about? (what’s a ‘factor’? is a ‘Guinea’ a ship? why say ‘rigger’ when ‘sailor’ would do? I know what a ‘mulatto’ is, but what’s a ‘quadroon’?) Other times, the insertion of historic detail is clunky and it’s hard to tell if it’s essential to the story or something better left out.
“working in the brakes… certain winds over Barbados brought the smell of a slaver long before its sail appeared on the horizon… Noah was a quadroon… the cutter monkeyed to the ground, hand still clutching the machete”
Anyway, when the idea was floated to allow myself the occasional insertion of an omniscient narrator, I was very open to it. And, guess what? I’ve been hearing this new voice talk all day and it’s not at all who I expected (i.e., white, female academic). Instead, he’s a sly and humorous bondman. I suspect his forceful commentary will ‘lay some learnin’ on me way before he does on you. I don’t think he’ll get a name. We’ll see. I’ve also kept the Barbadian cane grower who rapes one of my main characters (Sally aka Melody) nameless.
Tomorrow: how what I learned about accountability at the Organizing on (Safety) Pins and Needles anti-racism training on Wednesday applies to manuscript feedback.
(Note next day: Nope. Can’t go there yet).
Photographs were taken February 2017, at MacLeod Plantation on James Island.
the bondman’s story sounds like the key to answering the moral, ethical and literary issues you are facing up to, you are a very brave writer (((Dee)))
Thanks Mo. not sure there is a single key but this new idea feels like it will help move the manuscript forward.
this is just the Best post on The Book yet…for the first time i feel like i have a sense
of the true scope of this effort
and the consideration of the omniscient narrator…at this point….how SO interesting….
Well just goes to show that going where the energy is creates energy.
The positive comments are superbly positive. The more critical are deep and difficult, as you’d want your want challenges to be, right? So this is very exciting indeed. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, a generous and trusting act. It’s educational and fascinating and exciting to know what you are experiencing.
Of course the challenges are welcome, useful, necessary.
by the way, I saw and responded to “Gallows Humor and Bluebells” via wordpress “reader” but can’t revisit the page. Other stuff is showing up. not concerned about you getting my response, its just odd that the link to that particular post is unreachable. Am I the only one having tech difficulties I wonder? thx.
Hi Maggie. I read and responded to your wonderful comment! Emailing you in a sec
just finished reading “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders, a brilliant book on so many levels, like nothing I have ever read, compelling and so very strange
I’ve seen him interviewed and been intrigued but the form didn’t draw me in. I take it you found it worthwhile.
it’s a bit like reading Dostoevsky for the first time, a difficult tangle of voices that but once they start to make sense they become so compelling it’s difficult to put the book down, loved how he stitches the layers of voices together like a patchwork quilt
When you want to retain the aroma and the freshness of all the ingredients used in the cooking, the earthenware is your best choice.