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Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction’

My partner and I, over breakfast, were discussing what a leap year is. The only consensus that we were able to come to was that time is an artificial construct. For this reason, Black History Month and Women’s History Month, etc., are also artificial constructs. It is helpful to bring our respective histories to the forefront.

I explored my family history, overlapping with the labor movement and Philadelphia history in Tea Leaves: a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books). My life with my partner who worked for, now retired from, the U.S. Postal Service is also a big part of Tea Leaves as well as my relationship with my mother, especially as I cared for her in the final months of her life. Close to thirty years ago I went with my partner to her African American co-worker’s church on “men’s day.” As I wrote, the end result was that this co-worker liked me so much “she’d stopped praying for Barbara.” That is how change is made — when we enter each other’s lives.

We all live in a world where the history of the many is larger than the history of the few (that of privileged straight white men). And the fact is that the history of privileged straight white men is also impacted by the history of the many. By many I mean those of us all races, those of who identify as queer, the more than half the population that is female, as well as the rest of the many. All of our lives touch.

When I first heard of Foresaken (NewSouth Books) by Ross Howell, Jr., I was intrigued. The novel is about a sixteen year old black girl who actually lived in Hampton, Virginia, who one day retaliated against her overbearing white woman employer in her home and murdered her. The story is told from the point of view of an eighteen year old white male newspaper reporter. The protagonist, Charlie, has gone through connecting with people on a human level, befriending blacks as well as whites. This historic novel is a compelling read, and as I turned the pages, I found myself drawn into a prism where the reasons for the girl’s crime — pent-up rage — unfolds as the protagonist talks to her elderly lawyer, a former slave who is now blind.

Foresaken is a novel where the toll that societal and institutional racism takes on whites (while less oppressive and vastly different than the effects of institutional racism against black people), specifically on white people who dared to speak up on behalf of the humanity of black people, is taken into account. As the author writes:

“I felt I would never meet another man like Mr. Fields. He had been a slave. Now he was free. He once had sight. Now he was blind. Was I feeling what he felt when he heard the whip on his mother’s back? I flicked the cigarette into the street. I sat down on the curb. I was so angry that it was hard to breathe. Who does Jim Crow leave free?”

Another historical novel explores the true story of a seamstress slave from Norfolk, Virginia. The Treason of Mary Louvestre is written by My Haley (Koehlerbooks), the widow of Alex Haley. My collaborated on his groundbreaking book of African American history, Roots, and the subsequent miniseries released in 1977. As it says on the book jacket, “Now My has returned to her own roots as an author with The Treason of Mary Louvestre.”

My deftly brings the reader into Mary’s world as the plot unfolds and Mary copies the plans for the CSS Virginia (a confederate warship) and enters a world where she must take a long journey and face certain death as a spy.

Mary Louvestre is an important historical figure and a strong woman character, some might say a feminist hero.

Raised like “the daughter” of white slave owners, Mary sees the writing on the wall — if they fall on financial hard times or die, she will be sold as a slave. This is the turning point for her. She can stay and let others decide her fate or she can leave and influence history:

“What a fool she had been! …. Not only had she trusted that someday she was to be free, that she would transcend being a Negro slave, she had convinced herself she’d have financial control over her life, real power over her future.

In reality, she was special only as a special pet of her owners. They didn’t physically beat her. Nor did they board her on slave row. She didn’t eat from a peck of rice and throwaway saltfish. Yet, she still felt insignificant.

Her life testified to other Negroes that, if they worked from dusk to dawn every day of their lives to “serve the South” and “make their master’s proud,” they got to keep on doing it for the rest of their lives. That was their prize. Regarded as second-class no matter how hard they tried was the message that she had received. It was galling — and so unfair.”

We all face turning points in our lives. It might be to accept ourselves or to realize how society perceives us. Sometimes that turning point is the realization that we are all connected. Always, it is powerful.

This review was previously in The Huffington Post.

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This morning, for Palm Sunday, I presented this novel excerpt at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia where I am a lay minister.  The segment is also on You Tube. Click here to see the video.

Although I was raised by a card carrying atheist mother and an agnostic father, I always loved Palm Sunday.  I loved the pale green palms.  I loved the story. I loved the donkey.  Maybe it was the pagan origins that drew me in.  Even as an adult, Palm Sunday held its appeal.  Still, I thought that religion had nothing to do with me. And over the years, I came to think that I had dodged a bullet.  Still, I wanted to believe in something — maybe I wanted to believe in myself more.

A few years ago, I experienced a spiritual awakening as a result of coming to this church.  My first thought was that “they don’t own it.” ‘They’ being the Christian right and ‘it’ being religion.  Last year when I read the Bible — I was actually surprised to see how little anti-gay material is in it, except for the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis, and some rules in Leviticus — that also include not eating shellfish or wearing garments made of linen and wool.

As a second generation feminist coming of age in the seventies, I lived by  the motto that rules were made to be broken.  As a creative writer, it is not unusual for me to view the world through  my characters. When I heard that the theme for worship this month was Brokenness and Resilience I thought of my maternal grandfather, Joseph.

His brokenness and resilience is something that has been passed down to me. He was a Merchant Marine, a lover of opera (he was Anglo not Italian), an alcoholic and a batterer to his wife (my grandmother) and his daughters (my mother and my aunt). I developed my own theory about him and when I told my gay male friends about him, they gave me knowing nods.

I am going to read an excerpt from my novel Catwalk which is set in the late 1920s in the Prohibition era.  Joseph, the protagonist, is a gay man and is also the son of a Baptist deacon. My grandfather, Joseph, was raised in Biloxi, Mississippi.  The fictive Joseph is in love with his boyhood friend Vince, who he was separated from and who he pines for. Joseph, my grandfather, abandoned my mother (and the rest of her family) when she was seven.  I never met him. I always wanted to know more about him — even if I had to make it up.

I’ve been working on this novel for ten years and when I was in the revision process, I noticed that it was full of religion.  I realized then that religion has always been with me — as a fact and as a fiction. Palm Sunday, which Rita will tell us more about, was my pathway to religion.  Religion fueled Joseph’s demons.  But in this section where Joseph falls asleep under the stars on the beach of the Mississippi Sound — religion enters his subconscious in a good way.

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Joseph lay down on the sand and curled into a fetal position. It was a hot summer night.  He shut his eyes and listened to  waves wash over pebbles.  He fell asleep and dreamed that he was standing in the cemetery with a shovel, digging into the sand.  A familiar voice called to him. It was deep and pleasant.  But it was distant. The voice brought back everything that he had ever loved.  They had been boys together, sitting next to each other in church, swimming through the waves to a deserted isle where they could pretend they were shipwrecked sailors. Vince was a part of him.  His voice brought everything back — Vince being bullied when he was a boy — the scar that was left on his cheek when Joseph had defended him. The two of them becoming fast friends, boys growing to men. He remembered the first time they had made love.  Memories of sea foam.  Their shared experience of being fathers was part of their love, too.  Vince was at his happiest when he had become a father, twice over.  Joseph had been happy for him. He had almost been as happy when his own children were born.

Vince called to him in a deep, melodious voice that was separate from Joseph but part of him, too.  The voice was louder with every shovel full of sand that Joseph dug up and flung over his shoulder.  He dug faster and faster – but still the voice was far away.  Eventually the hole he dug was so deep that he could no longer reach the bottom.  Joseph saw translucent arms reaching toward him from the hole.

Suddenly the apparition became filled with blinding light.  As Joseph stared into the light, he saw that it was a tall figure with wings the span of an Albatross.

It was Vince disguised as an angel — like one of the angels who came to visit Lot in Sodom.  There were two angels that visited Lot.  Joseph could be the other angel. The neighboring men from the town had knocked on Lot’s door, saying that they wanted to “know” the angels. But in Joseph’s version, the angels would leave together — hand in hand.

They would fly to a land in the clouds where two men could love each other.  Their love was bright and true.  Their love was so strong that it would change everything — including a world that denied they existed.

Joseph cast down his shovel and dove into the hole.  When he reached the brilliant angel that was Vince, he fell right through him.  He realized then that the dazzling light was fire.  Yet the flames did not burn or scorch him. The fire cleansed him.

The Bible said that Godly fire would consume the wicked, but not the righteous.

His love for Vince was as pure as the fire of God, and Vince returned it.  Together, they would spread the gospel of love.

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