The author discusses the research and inspiration behind her historical fiction novel, Master of My Fate (Penguin, 2019). Sienna Brown’s debut novel, poses questions about Australia’s past and reimagines the life of 19th century Jamaican slave William Buchanan. [See previous post From slave in Jamaica to convict in Australia: Master of My Fate.] Here are excerpts from the Q&A. See full interview at Penguin Books.
How did you come to know William Buchanan?
I discovered William Buchanan’s story while working as a guide in Sydney at the UNESCO World Heritage listed Hyde Park Barracks (HPB). A museum space, HPB is home to an internationally renowned collection, as well as a database listing of all the male convicts who passed through there, during the era of convict transportation. Born in Jamaica, I was curious to see if any of my fellow countrymen might be on the database and was very surprised to discover over 700 non-European convicts listed. They had been transported from colonies within – ‘the empire on which the sun never sets’ – the British Empire. William arrived in 1836 on the convict ship the Moffatt and was listed among those 700.
What attracted you to his story?
William’s life story was one of the most dramatic ones I encountered. It was larger than life and the adage ‘that fact is sometimes stranger than fiction’ applied. While researching several other Jamaican convicts, I wasn’t overly attentive to William at first, but gradually it became like an addiction. The more I researched William, the more I found. I discovered he was born a slave in 1800 in the Parish of Saint James, had fought in the Baptist Rebellion of 1831-32, which helped to bring about the abolition of slavery and within two months of arriving at HPB, he escaped, along with fellow Jamaican convict James Smith, their bushranger exploits being profiled in the Sydney Herald newspaper. Added to this he was put on trial three times and three times he escaped the hangman’s noose. [. . .]
How/when did you discover Will’s voice?
Will’s voice came slowly. It took a while for me to emotionally shift from writing in the third person past tense (I could never get the tone right) – to writing in the first person present (which worked) – because I was suddenly hearing (his) voice in my head. I was also passionate about trying to be authentic, to discover how did nineteenth-century slaves speak? A difficult task given I was trying to commit to writing a language and grammar, which was predominantly spoken and if written was usually from the perspective of the colonisers, not in the voice of the colonised.
The Dictionary of Jamaican English became a wonderful resource, and I used it to reference words in an effort to emulate the patois of the slaves. Ultimately, though, I realised it was up to me to listen to my characters’ voices and convey them to the page. The end result was that while I borrowed heavily from the conventions of Jamaican patois, I put my own twist on it, in order to allow the story to be unencumbered by language. [. . .]
For full interview, see https://www.penguin.com.au/qa/2251-sienna-brown-q-and-a