In order to do this work — to even begin to think about attempting this work — one must acknowledge that this will be a practice of many failures. In order to give voice to the transatlantic slave trade, its long life, and its innumerable repercussions, one must embrace a silence created by two factors: a silence necessary for listening, and a silence necessary to acknowledge that which is unspeakable.
The article came just as I was finishing “Between the World and Me”, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. His beautiful prose and hard-hitting insights are essential reading — especially if one is white and serious about becoming conscious about racism. I came away feeling chastened by all the ways that white privilege so seamlessly bolsters my life and my children’s lives and also saddened at all the ways racism continues to destroy African-American lives. Right now, I’m taking a break from the book about Afro-Cuban Ifa (Babalawos, Santeria’s High Priests, by Frank Baba Eyiogbe). My head spins with the complexities, not at all helped by so many of the gods’ names beginning with the letter “o”!
Lately, I’ve been rewriting a lot and trying not to worry about it. There is so much story still to go! But this is where the energy gathers and I’d be a fool to fight it.
Magnolia Plantation, April 2014
I am trying to figure out this business of voice for the enslaved characters. Those chapters are written in “third person close narrative”, which means even though I am referring to them in the third person, the story is coming as if from inside their heads. The language can’t be mine. And it can’t be Eliza’s. To help, I am referring to transcribed interviews of former slaves collected during the 1930’s as part of the Federal Writers’ Project (“Before Freedom, When I Can Just Remember“). The people collecting the narratives were all white, so there’s that. But as best I can tell, they captured the cadence of speech employed by the enslaved, as well as their vocabulary and sentence structure.
The Eliza chapters are told in the first person. I find her easy to hear in my head.
My goal is that by juxtaposing her story with the stories of a handful of her slaves, the structure of the novel itself will create a harsh and exacting contrast. A while ago, I made this collage of well-to-do Colonial children and a desolate Louisiana bayou to explore this very contrast.
And speaking of contrasts. How about my plodding descriptions of this or that and Janelle’s exuberant description of struggle?!!